TEL AVIV - Former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon died in hospital near Tel Aviv Saturday after eight years in a coma, prompting a flood of tributes in Israel but contempt from Palestinians. He was 85.

“He’s gone,” his son Gilad told reporters at the Sheba Medical Centre in Tel HaShomer. “He went when he decided to go.”

The former war hero had been in a coma since January 4, 2006 after suffering a massive stroke. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse on New Year’s Day when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.

Hospital chief Professor Shlomo Noy said Sharon’s heart “had weakened” and he died at around 1200 GMT.

Israeli press reports said there would be a state memorial service at the Knesset, or parliament, on Monday after which Sharon would be buried at his private ranch in the southern Negev desert. The burly white-haired politician was one of Israel’s most controversial political and military leaders. Hailed by many Israelis as a statesman, his ruthless methods also earned him the moniker “The Bulldozer.”

As news of his death emerged, tributes poured in from Israeli officials and from abroad but the Palestinians were quick to denounce him as a “criminal” who had escaped international justice. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” over the news and said Israel would “forever” cherish Sharon’s memory. President Shimon Peres said Sharon would be “greatly missed.”

World leaders also sent condolences.

US President Barack Obama paid tribute to him as a leader who “dedicated his life” to Israel, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to its close ally.

“We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security,” it added.

Former US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, an ex-Secretary of State, saying it was “an honour to work with him.”  French President Francois Hollande also paid tribute, describing Sharon as “a central figure” in Israel’s history.

A veteran soldier, Sharon fought in all of Israel’s major wars before embarking on a turbulent political career in 1973 that ended dramatically when he suffered the stroke from which he never recovered.

Long considered a pariah for his personal but “indirect” responsibility for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Sharon was elected premier in 2001.

The Palestinians were quick to welcome the news, with a senior official labelling Sharon a criminal and accusing him of being responsible for the mysterious death in 2004 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,” said Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Fatah party.

The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, hailed Sharon’s death as a “historic moment” marking the “disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, also regretted that Sharon never faced justice, particularly over his role in the Beirut camp killings. “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses,” she said in a statement.

“His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer. For the thousands of victims of abuses, Sharon’s passing without facing justice magnifies their tragedy.”

One of the last members of the generation that founded the Jewish state 1948, he leaves a complex legacy which saw him push through a policy of separation from the Palestinians, orchestrate Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and begin building the sprawling West Bank barrier in 2002.

Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to parents from Belarus, Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the pre-state militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

Known throughout his military career for his boldness, Sharon also had a stubborn sense of independence which saw him surprising friends and foes alike.

Sharon later broke with his life-long rightwing convictions to push through an unprecedentedly bold plan to withdraw Israeli troops and 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, earning him the hatred of his former nationalist and settler allies.

“Ariel Sharon was first and foremost a rare military leader who shaped the Israeli army,” said Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, a bitter opponent of the Gaza pullout.

“Despite the differences of opinion along the way, I always valued his experience and leadership. The defence establishment.. bows its head today with his departure.”

In the months after the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon abandoned his lifelong political home in Likud to form a new centrist party, Kadima, with the aim of effecting further, but limited, pullouts from the West Bank.

But just six weeks later, he was felled by a stroke at the height of his political career.