In both stature and personality, Ariel Sharon resembled the bulldozers he favoured as a key military weapon – bullish and apparently unstoppable.

As a teenage paramilitary, a professional soldier and a veteran Rightist politician, his primary goal never changed – securing Israel as a permanent haven for Jews.

Born in 1928 in Palestine, then a British mandate, his first name means Lion of God.

He joined the Jewish paramilitary group Haganah at the age of 14 and by 20 was an infantry leader in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

He was shot and wounded during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, a war that some say he believed he was fighting until his death.

He served in the IDF for 25 years, rising to the rank of Major-General.

During that time he founded and led a commando unit to carry out punitive raids, including an attack on the village of Qibya in 1953 which saw 50 houses blown up and 69 people killed.

He was commander of a paratroop brigade in the Sinai Campaign and later trained with British Army officers at the Camberley Staff College, in Surrey.

He then served as an infantry brigade commander and Infantry School commander before he was appointed Head of the IDF Northern Command in 1964 and Head of the Army Training Branch in 1966.

He commanded an armoured division in the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel seized East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

His harsh occupation of these lands introduced many Palestinians to a man who would become their sworn enemy. He was appointed Head of the IDF Southern Command in 1969.

Sharon resigned from the army in 1973, but was recalled to active military service in October of that year for the Yom Kippur War.

He led the crossing of the Suez Canal which brought about victory in the war and eventual peace with Egypt.

Sharon was first elected to the Knesset in 1973 but resigned a year later to become special security advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

He was re-elected in 1977 and was made Minister of Defence in 1981.

The following year, he led a disastrous invasion of Lebanon in order to prevent the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organisation, led by Yasser Arafat, from launching attacks.

He did so without expressly informing his Prime Minister.

The move led to the massacre by Christian militia of hundreds – possibly thousands – of Palestinian refugees held at the Sabra and Shatila camps, supposedly under Israeli protection.

Sharon was stripped of the Defence Ministry in disgrace but made a remarkable comeback to become Minister of Trade and Industry (1984-90), Construction and Housing (1990-92), National Infrastructure (1996-98), Foreign Minister (1998-99) and the Prime Minister from 2001.

As Housing Minister, he led a massive building drive in the settlements in West Bank and Gaza.

He was made Foreign Minister after Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition came to power in 1996, then became leader of the Likud Party in opposition after Netanyahu’s general election defeat.

In February 2001, following a Palestinian uprising which critics claim Sharon helped to incite, he won elections on a promise of security and stability.

Part of his plan was the controversial West Bank barrier, a wall and razor wire fence to fight the growing menace of suicide bomb attacks.

However, he also surprised the world by withdrawing settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

The one-time settlers’ champion even deployed troops to physically drag some hard-liners from homes and synagogues.

Some argued this was evidence of the hawk becoming a dove, but others said it was merely typical of Sharon’s willingness to shift the goalposts in his quest for security.

Sharon ruled out further unilateral withdrawals and said he envisioned a map of Israel’s eventual borders – not to be made public until the end of final-status talks with the Palestinians.

Amid the growing dissent within Likud over the withdrawals, Sharon left the party in November 2005 to form the Centrist party Kadima, meaning Forward.

The party was tipped to win the general election of March 2006.

He suffered a mild stroke on December 18 last year and a second, more serious stroke, on January 4.