During his lengthy career, Sharon was a highly controversial figure among many factions, both inside and outside Israel. Some of his critics have sought to prosecute him as a war criminal for alleged crimes related to the Sabra and Shatila massacre during the 1982 Lebanon War. The Kahan Commission held him personally responsible for the entry of the Lebanese Falangist militias into the Palestinian camp—circumstances which permitted the perpetration of a massacre as reaction to the killing of the Lebanese elected president Bashir Jemayel. Sharon lost his post as Defense Minister as a result, but remained in the cabinet as minister without portfolio. Sharon continued as a leading figure in the Likud Party, and held various senior cabinet and party posts, ultimately becoming party leader in 1999 and Prime Minister in 2001.
During his tenure as Prime Minister, Sharon's policies caused a rift within the Likud Party, and he ultimately left Likud to form a new party called Kadima. He became the first Prime Minister of Israel who did not belong to either Labor or Likud (the two parties that have traditionally dominated Israeli politics). The new party created by Sharon, with Ehud Olmert having stepped in as its leader, after Sharon fell ill in the midst of election season, won the most Knesset seats in the 2006 elections, and is now the senior coalition partner in the Israeli government.
The family arrived in the Second Aliyah and settled in a socialist, secular community where, despite being Mapai supporters, they were known to be contrarians against the prevailing community consensus:
The Scheinermans' eventual ostracism... followed the 1933 Arlozorov murder when Dvora and Shmuel refused to endorse the Labor movement's anti-Revisionist calumny and participate in Bolshevic-style public revilement rallies, then the order of the day. Retribution was quick to come. They were expelled from the local health-fund clinic and village synagogue. The cooperative's truck wouldn't make deliveries to their farm nor collect produce.
Four years after their arrival at Kfar Malal, the Sheinermans had a daughter, Yehudit (Dita), and two years after, they had a son, Ariel.
At age 10, Sharon entered the youth movement Zionist, Hassadeh (“the Field”).
In 1942 at the age of 14, Sharon joined the Gadna, a paramilitary youth battalion, and later the Haganah, the underground paramilitary force and the Jewish military precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
At the creation of Israel (and Haganah's transformation into the Israel Defense Forces), Sharon became a platoon commander in the Alexandroni Brigade. He was severely wounded in the groin by the Jordanian Arab Legion in the first Battle of Latrun, an unsuccessful attempt to relieve the besieged Jewish community of Jerusalem. His injuries eventually healed.
In September 1949, Sharon was promoted to company commander (of the Golani Brigade's reconnaissance unit) and in 1950 to intelligence officer for Central Command. He then took leave to begin studies in history and Middle Eastern culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A year and a half later, he was asked to return to active service in the rank of major and as the leader of the new Unit 101, Israel's first special forces unit.
Unit 101 undertook a series of military raids against Palestinians and neighboring Arab states that helped bolster Israeli morale and fortify its deterrent image. The unit was known for targeting civilians , notably in the widely condemned Qibya massacre in the fall of 1953, in which 69 Palestinian civilians, some of them children, were killed by Sharon's troops in a reprisal attack on their West Bank village. In the documentary Israel and the Arabs: 50 Year War, Sharon recalls what happened after the raid, which was heavily condemned by many Western nations, including the U.S.:
I was summoned to see Ben-Gurion. It was the first time I met him, and right from the start Ben-Gurion said to me: "Let me first tell you one thing: it doesn't matter what the world says about Israel, it doesn't matter what they say about us anywhere else. The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers. And unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won't survive."
Shortly afterwards, just a few months after its founding, Unit 101 was merged into the 890 Paratroopers Brigade (Sharon eventually became the latter's commander), which continued to attack military and civilian targets, culminating with the attack on the Qalqilyah police station in the autumn of 1956.
Sharon has been widowed twice. Shortly after becoming a military instructor, he married his first wife, Margalit, with whom he had a son, Gur. Margalit died in a car accident in May 1962. Their son, Gur, died in October 1967 after a friend shot him while they were playing with a rifle. After Margalit's death, Sharon married her younger sister, Lily. They had two sons, Omri and Gil'ad. Lily Sharon died of cancer in 2000.
From 1958 to 1962, Sharon served as commander of an infantry brigade and studied law at Tel Aviv University.
Sharon asked for permission to attack the pass several times, but his requests were denied (although he was allowed to check its status so that if the pass was empty, he could receive permission to take it later). Sharon sent a small scout force, which was met with heavy fire and became bogged down due to vehicle malfunction in the middle of the pass. Sharon ordered the rest of his troops to attack in order to aid their comrades. In the ensuing successful battle to capture the pass, 38 Israeli soldiers were killed.
Sharon was not only criticized by his superiors, he was damaged by revelations several years later by several former subordinates (one of IDF's first major revelations to the press), who claimed that Sharon tried to provoke the Egyptians and sent out the scouts in bad faith, ensuring that a battle would ensue. Deliberate or not, the attack was considered strategically reckless because the Egyptian forces were expected to withdraw from the pass within a day or two.
At the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973, Sharon was called back to duty and assigned to command a reserve armored division. His forces did not engage the Egyptian Army immediately. Under cover of darkness Sharon's forces moved to a point on the Suez Canal that had been prepared before the war. Bridging equipment was thrown across the canal on October 17. The bridgehead was between two Egyptian Armies. He then raced south on the African side of the canal. This cut the supply lines of the Egyptian Third Army, located to the south of the canal crossing, isolating it from other Egyptian units. The exploit violated orders from the head of Southern Command.
The divisions of Sharon and Abraham Adan (Bren) passed over this bridge into Africa advancing to within 101 kilometers of Cairo. They wreaked havoc on the supply lines of the Third Army stretching to the south of them, cutting off and encircling the Third Army, but did not force its surrender before the ceasefire. Tensions between the two generals followed his decision, but a military tribunal later found his action was militarily effective. This move was regarded by many Israelis as the turning point of the war in the Sinai front. Thus, Sharon is widely viewed as a war hero who saved Israel from defeat in Sinai. A photo of Sharon wearing a head bandage on the Suez Canal became a famous symbol of Israeli military prowess.
Sharon's aggressive political positions were controversial and he was relieved of duty in February 1974.
From June 1975 to March 1976, Sharon was a special aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He planned his return to politics for the 1977 elections; first he tried to return to the Likud and replace Menachem Begin at the head of the party. He suggested to Simha Erlich, who headed the Liberal Party bloc in the Likud, that he was more fitting than Begin to win an election victory; he was rejected, however. He then tried to join the Labor Party and the centrist Democratic Movement for Change, but was rejected by those parties too. Only then did he form his own list, Shlomtzion, which won two Knesset seats in the subsequent elections. Immediately after the elections he merged Shlomtzion with the Likud and became Minister of Agriculture.
When Sharon joined Begin's government he had relatively little political experience. During this period, Sharon supported the Gush Emunim settlements movement and was viewed as the patron of the settlers' movement. He used his position to encourage the establishment of a network of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to prevent the possibility of Palestinian Arabs' return of these territories. Sharon doubled the number of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip during his tenure.
On his settlement policy, Sharon said while addressing a meeting of the Tzomet party: "Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Judean) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours... Everything we don't grab will go to them."
After the 1981 elections, Begin rewarded Sharon for his important contribution to Likud's narrow win, by appointing him Minister of Defense. On 16 January 1982 US President Ronald Reagan, in his diary, said that Sharon was "the bad guy who seemingly looks forward to a war.
An Associated Press report on 15 September 1982 stated:
The Kahan Commission found the Israeli Defence Forces indirectly responsible for the massacre and charged Sharon with "personal responsibility." It recommended in early 1983 the removal of Sharon from his post as Defense minister. In their recommendations and closing remarks, the commission stated:
Sharon initially refused to resign as Defense Minister, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin initially refused to fire him. After a grenade was tossed into a dispersing crowd of an Israeli Peace Now march, killing Emil Grunzweig and injuring 10 others, a compromise was reached: Sharon agreed to forfeit the post of Defense Minister but stayed in the cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio. Ariel Sharon's removal as Defense Minister is listed as one of the important events of the Tenth Knesset
In its 21 February 1983 issue, Time published a story implying Sharon was directly responsible for the massacres. Sharon sued Time for libel in American and Israeli courts. Although the jury concluded that the Time story included false allegations, they found that Time had not acted with "actual malice" and did not award any damages.
On 18 June 2001 relatives of the victims of the Sabra massacre began proceedings in Belgium to have Sharon indicted on war crimes charges. In June 2002, a Brussels Appeals Court rejected the lawsuit because the law was subsequently changed to disallow such lawsuits unless a Belgian citizen is involved.
In Benjamin Netanyahu's 1996–1999 government, Sharon was Minister of National Infrastructure (1996—1998), and Foreign Minister (1998—1999). Upon the election of the Barak Labor government, Sharon became leader of the Likud party.
Sharon's visit, a few months before his election as Prime Minister, came after archeologists claimed that extensive building operations at the site were destroying priceless antiquities. Sharon's supporters point out that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority planned the intifada months prior to Sharon's visit. They state that Palestinian security chief Jabril Rajoub provided assurances that if Sharon did not enter the mosques, no problems would arise. They also often quote statements by Palestinian Authority officials, particularly Imad Falouji, the P.A. Communications Minister, who admitted months after Sharon's visit that the violence had been planned in July, far in advance of Sharon's visit, stating the intifada "was carefully planned since the return of (Palestinian President) Yasser Arafat from Camp David negotiations rejecting the U.S. conditions". According to the Mitchell Report,
The Or Commission, an Israeli panel of inquiry appointed to investigate the October 2000 events,
Palestinians doubt the existence of popular support for Sharon's actions. Polls published in the media, as well as the 140% call-up of reservists (as opposed to the 60% in regular periods) seem to indicate that the Israeli public is quite supportive of Sharon's policies. A survey conducted by Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center in May 2004 found that 80% of Jewish Israelis believe that the Israel Defense Forces have succeeded in militarily countering the Al-Aqsa Intifada, indicating widespread faith in Sharon's hard-line policy.
On July 20, 2004, Sharon called on French Jews to emigrate from France to Israel immediately, in light of an increase in French anti-Semitism (94 anti-Semitic assaults reported in the first six months of 2004 compared to 47 in 2003). France has the fourth largest Jewish population (about 600,000 people), after the United States, Israel, and Russia. Sharon observed that an "unfettered anti-Semitism" reigned in France. The French government responded by describing his comments as "unacceptable", as did the French representative Jewish organization CRIF, which denied Sharon's claim of intense anti-Semitism in French society. An Israeli spokesperson later claimed that Sharon had been misunderstood. France then postponed a visit by Sharon. Upon his visit, both Sharon and French President Jacques Chirac were described as showing a willingness to put the issue behind them.
In May 2003, Sharon endorsed the Road Map for Peace put forth by the United States, European Union, and Russia, which opened a dialogue with Mahmud Abbas, and announced his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state in the future.
He has embarked on a course of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, while maintaining control of its coastline and airspace. Sharon's plan has been welcomed by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel's left wing as a step towards a final peace settlement. However, it has been greeted with opposition from within his own Likud party and from other right wing Israelis, on national security, military, and religious grounds.
In the elections, which saw Israel's lowest-ever voter turnout of 75% (the number usually averages on the high 90%), Kadima, headed by Olmert, received the most Knesset seats, followed by Labor. The new governing coalition installed in May 2006 includes Kadima, with Olmert as Prime Minister, Labor (including Peretz as Defense Minster), the Gil (Pensioner's) Party, the Shas religious party, and Yisrael Beiteinu.
Ehud Olmert became Caretaker for Prime Minister the night of Sharon's second stroke. Knesset elections followed in March, with Olmert and Sharon's Kadima party winning a plurality. The next month, the Israeli Cabinet declared Sharon permanently incapacitated and Olmert officially became (Acting) Prime Minister of Israel on April 14, 2006 until his new established government on May 4, making him Prime Minister by all means.
Sharon has undergone a series of subsequent surgeries related to his comatose state. He has remained in a long-term care facility since November 6, 2006. Medical experts indicate that his cognitive abilities have likely been destroyed by the stroke. He is in a persistent vegetative state with extremely low chances of recovery.