Monday November 30th, 2015 6:42AM

Palestinians cheer death of Sharon, a bitter foe

By The Associated Press
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Ariel Sharon's death Saturday elicited a wide range of responses from Palestinians, but sadness wasn't one: Some cheered and distributed sweets while others prayed for divine punishment for the former Israeli leader or recalled his central role in some of the bloodiest episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians widely loathed Sharon as the mastermind of crushing military offensives against them in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza and as the architect of Israel's biggest settlement campaign on lands they want for a state.

The intensity of those feelings appears to have faded a bit because Sharon left the public stage eight year ago, when he suffered a debilitating stroke and slipped into a coma. Sharon died Saturday afternoon at a Tel Aviv hospital.

The news traveled quickly in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon's capital of Beirut, where Israeli-allied forces systematically slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in September 1982, three months after Sharon engineered the invasion of Israel's northern neighbor.

Sharon was later fired as defense minister over the massacre, with Israeli investigators rejecting his contention at the time that he didn't know the attack was coming.

"Sharon is dead!" a 63-year-old Palestinian woman in Sabra said, pointing to a text message from her daughter. "May God torture him," said the woman who only gave her first name, Samia. "We should celebrate. We should be firing in the air."

In the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, a few dozen supporters of two militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, gathered in the main street, chanting: "Sharon, go to hell." Some burned Sharon pictures or stepped on them, while others distributed sweets to motorists and passers-by.

Throughout his life, Sharon was at the center of the most contentious episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting as a young soldier fighting in the 1948 war over Israel's creation.

In the 1950s, he led a commando unit that carried out reprisals for Arab attacks. In 1953, after the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon's troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs, most or all of them civilians.

He fought in the Israeli-Arab wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973. He launched the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as Israel's defense minister.

After his dismissal as defense minister, he gradually rehabilitated himself politically. By the early 1990s, as housing minister in a right-wing government, he oversaw a massive settlement drive in the West Bank.

As opposition leader in September 2000, Sharon visited a contested Jewish-Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into an armed uprising.

Less than a year later, he was elected prime minister. In 2002, after a string of Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks, he reoccupied the West Bank towns that had been handed to Palestinian self-rule in previous interim peace deals.

Sharon also placed his longtime nemesis, then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under virtual house arrest in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

A close Arafat aide at the time, then-intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, said Saturday that Sharon's death was proof that the Palestinians will prevail.

Sharon "wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map," Tirawi said. "He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refrained from commenting on the death of Sharon, whose decision in 2005 to withdraw from Gaza helped bring the Islamic militant group Hamas to power two years later.

Sharon pulled out of Gaza without consulting with Abbas, a step believed to have contributed to the rise of the Hamas forces that eventually defeated troops loyal to Abbas in Gaza.

Khalil al-Haya of Hamas said Sharon had caused suffering to generations of Palestinians. "After eight years, he is going in the same direction as other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood," he said.

Some Palestinians expressed disappointment that Sharon hadn't been put on trial or had suffered a violent death.

"I always wished he would be killed by a Palestinian child or a woman, like he killed children and women," said Mohammed el-Srour, a Sabra resident who lost his father and five siblings in the massacre.

In Qibya, the village Sharon's forces raided in 1953, residents stage a memorial march each year.

Village resident Hamed Ghethan, 65, said earlier this week that he was sorry to see Sharon and the others involved in the attack escape punishment. "We were hoping the world would hear our voice and try them," he said.

The international group Human Rights Watch expressed a similar sentiment, saying in a statement: "It's a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Chatilla and other abuses."

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