World leaders hail Sharon; Palestinians call him ‘criminal’

A Palestinian distributes sweets in a street of the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis as a boy holds a poster bearing a portrait of former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon who died today in Israel, on January 11, 2014. (Reuters)

While world leaders paid tribute on Saturday to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calling him a patriot who made “brave decisions,” Palestinians labeled him as a “criminal.”

Responses from Western leaders and Palestinian officials to the passing of Ariel Sharon have been mixed.

Mourning Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sharon “was first and foremost a brave warrior and great strategist, among the greatest of Israel Defense Force commanders," Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying.

The Israeli President Shimon Peres, a former political ally of Sharon said “Arik was a valorous soldier and a bold statesman who contributed much to the security and building up of the State of Israel.”

“Arik loved his people, and his people loved him,” Peres said, using the nickname of Sharon.

He added: “He knew no fear and never feared pursuing a vision.”

Other than Israeli officials, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sharon would be remembered for “his political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.”

Ban also called on Israel to “build on the late prime minister’s legacy of pragmatism to work towards the long overdue achievement of an independent and viable Palestinian state, next to a secure Israel.”

‘Sharon dedicated his life to Israel’

U.S. President Barack Obama said he joined Israelis in honoring Sharon’s commitment to Israel and affirmed traditional U.S. support for Israel’s security.

Obama and his wife Michelle sent their deepest condolences to Sharon’s family and to Israelis on “the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel,” Reuters reported.

“We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples,” Obama said.

Bill Clinton, the U.S. former president and his wife Hillary, an ex-Secretary of State, said: “It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country.”

They added: “Ariel Sharon gave his life to Israel -- to bring it into being, to sustain and preserve it, and at the end of his long service, to create a new political party committed to both a just peace and lasting security.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said he will lead the U.S. delegation to the memorial service for Sharon.

Biden said he and his wife, Jill, were saddened to hear of Sharon’s death.

“We send our condolences to his family and to his beloved nation of Israel. I look forward to leading the U.S. delegation to his memorial service, to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel,” he added.

‘Israel lost an important leader’

British Prime Minister David Cameron also hailed Sharon for making “brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace, before he was so tragically incapacitated.”

“Israel has today lost an important leader,” Cameron said in a statement issued by Downing Street.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed his admiration for the late prime minister when he described Sharon as a “great political and military” figure.

Putin also said he has a “high esteem of the personal qualities of Sharon and his activities aimed at defending the interests of Israel.”

Palestinians celebrate his death

For Palestinians, Sharon was considered a “criminal.”

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians were handing out sweets to the passersby and motorists in celebration of Sharon’s death.

A senior official, who called Sharon a criminal, said the late prime minister was responsible for the mysterious death 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,” Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Fatah party said.

An Israeli commission also found Sharon as indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds by Israeli-allied Christian militiamen at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982 during Israel's war to root out Palestinian guerrillas.

Hamas, an Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, also said that Sharon’s death was a “historic moment,” marking the “disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood.”

“We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant (Sharon),” Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas spokesman said.

Abu Zuhri added: “Our people today feel extreme happiness at the death and departure of this criminal whose hands were smeared with the blood of our people and the blood of our leaders here and in exile.”

Wael Abu Youself, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reuters that “despite the settlements and wars that he launched against us, here and in Lebanon and with the war crime of Sabra and Shatila (camps), Sharon has departed and the Palestinian people remain on their land.”

When Sharon was Israel’s foreign minister in 1998, he urged his Jewish settlers to take over as much West Bank land as possible before a permanent territorial agreement with Palestinians.

“Everyone there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands, everything that we don’t grab will be in their [Palestinian] hands,” he said.

Nicknamed “The Bulldozer,” Sharon fought in all of Israel’s major wars before embarking on a political career in 1973.

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