TEL AVIV (AFP) - Former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon died in hospital near Tel Aviv Saturday, aged 85, after eight years in a coma, drawing tributes from Israeli leaders but contempt from Palestinians.
"The Sheba Medical Centre in Tel HaShomer announces with sorrow the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon that was determined approximately an hour ago," senior doctor Professor Shlomo Noy told a news conference.
Sharon has been in a coma since January 4, 2006 after suffering a massive stroke.
His condition took a sudden turn for the worse on New Year's Day when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.
"He's gone; he went when he decided to go," his son Gilad told reporters at the hospital, in remarks on Channel 2 television.
Sharon was one of Israel's most skilled but controversial political and military leaders, who was hailed by many Israelis as a statesman whose ruthless methods earned him the moniker "The Bulldozer."
As news of his death emerged, tributes poured in from senior Israeli officials, but the Palestinians were quick to denounce him as a "criminal" who had escaped international justice.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would "forever" cherish Sharon's memory.
"The State of Israel bows its head over the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon," he said in a statement, expressing "deep sorrow" over the news.
"His memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation." President Shimon Peres also expressed his grief.
"My dear friend, Arik (Ariel) Sharon, lost his final battle today," he said in a statement.
"Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision," he said.
"He will be greatly missed." Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also expressed "great sadness" over his death.
"Arik was a man I loved. They say great soldiers don't die, they fade away.
Arik faded eight years ago, and now finally left us," she said.
He was a "brave fighter, a commander, a leader (and) a farmer whose legs were firmly planted in Israel's soil."
A veteran soldier, Sharon fought in all of Israel's major wars before embarking on a turbulent political career in 1973 that ended dramatically when he suffered the stroke from which he never recovered.
Long considered a pariah for his personal but "indirect" responsibility for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Sharon was elected premier in 2001.
The Palestinians were quick to welcome news of his death, with a senior official labelling him a criminal and accusing him of being responsible for the mysterious death in 2004 of the veteran Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
"Sharon was a criminal, responsible for the assassination of Arafat, and we would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal," said Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Fatah party.
The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, hailed Sharon's death as a "historic moment" marking the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood."
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, also regretted that Sharon never faced justice, particularly over his role in the Beirut camp killings.
"It's a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses," she said in a statement.
"His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.
For the thousands of victims of abuses, Sharon's passing without facing justice magnifies their tragedy."
One of the last members of the generation that founded the Jewish state 1948, he leaves a complex legacy which saw him push through a policy of separation from the Palestinians, orchestrate Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and begin building the sprawling West Bank barrier in 2002.
Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to parents from Belarus, Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the pre-state militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.
Known throughout his military career for his boldness, Sharon also had a stubborn sense of independence which saw him surprising friends and foes alike.
Ever the maverick, Sharon later broke with his life-long rightwing convictions to push through an unprecedentedly bold plan to withdraw Israeli troops and 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, earning him the hatred of his former nationalist and settler allies.
"Ariel Sharon was first and foremost a rare military leader who shaped the Israeli army," said Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, a bitter opponent of the Gaza pullout.
"Despite the differences of opinion along the way, I always valued his experience and leadership. The defence establishment.. bows its head today with his departure." In the months after the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon abandoned his lifelong political home in Likud to form a new centrist party, Kadima, with the aim of effecting further, but limited, pullouts from the West Bank.
But just six weeks later, when he was at the height of his political career, he collapsed into the coma from which he would never recover.