By Rachel Huggins and Jeremy Herb - 01/11/14 08:18 AM EST
Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon died Saturday after spending eight years in a coma following a debilitating stroke. He was 85.
Sharon's death was confirmed to the Associated Press by his son Gilad Sharon at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv.
"He has gone. He went when he decided to go," Gilad Sharon said outside the hospital where the former prime minister was treated after falling into a coma.
One of Israel's most iconic figures, Sharon was a military leader in every one of Israel’s military conflicts for more than half a century.
He began his career in the military, before holding government posts and eventually becoming Israeli Prime Minister in 2001.
After being a major proponent to expand Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, Sharon unexpectedly withdrew all Israeli settles from Gaza in 2005.
He then left the hawkish Likud Party and decided to form a new centrist party, Kadima, ahead of Israel’s presidential elections.
But before the elections in 2006 he suffered a massive stroke as prime minister, from which he never recovered.
According to the AP, Sharon directed the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as Israel’s defense minister, which he portrayed as a quick mission to drive Palestinian fighters from Israel’s border but had much more ambitious plans to reach Beirut and install a new regime.
He was fired from his post after the Israeli military allowed a Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel to enter Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, where they slaughtered hundreds of civilians.
The attacks sparked mass protest, and an Israeli commission rejected Sharon’s contention that he did not know what would happen, according to the AP.
In the military, Sharon led a force that carried out reprisals for Arab attacks, and also led Israeli troops in battle during the 1973 “Six Day War.”
Israeli leaders praised Sharon’s long and colorful careers after his death.
Ehud Olmert, who became prime minister on the Kadima ticket after Sharon’s stroke said Sharon’s life was "soaked in courage, human warmth, vision and leadership at the critical moments when the state of Israel needed all these."
"His entire life, Arik stood at the front line of fire in the place where the fate of the state of Israel was determined," Olmert said, according to the AP, referencing Sharon’s nickname.
President Shimon Peres said Sharon 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," Peres said.
He is not, however, remembered fondly by Palestinian leaders.
"We will remember Ariel Sharon as the man who killed, destroyed and caused the suffering for several Palestinian generations," said Khalil Al Hayya, a leader of the Hamas militant group in Gaza, according to the AP. "After eight years, he is going the same direction as other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood."
U.S. leaders from both parties also praised the former Israeli prime minister.
“Israel has lost one of its greatest sons and America a friend in the passing of Ariel Sharon,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “A legendary military man dating back to the Israeli War of Independence, Ariel Sharon distinguished himself as a strategist and a soldier in virtually every major Israeli conflict of the second half of the 20th Century.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Sharon “always maintained the courage of his convictions.”
“Whether you agreed with his policies or opposed his politics, you always knew where he stood, where he intended to direct his troops, where he sought to lead his fellow citizens,” she said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Sharon was "one of the greatest warrior-statesmen in modern history."
"Sharon’s contribution to establishing and defending Israel’s independence is incalculable and his devotion to peace undisputed," Boehner said.
This story was updated at 10:11 a.m.