KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip - Soon after Yamima Cohen Ayoubi moved to this Jewish settlement in the midst of Palestinian cities and sand dunes, Ariel Sharon paid a visit.
It was 1989 and Sharon - the former general, master builder of Israel's settlements and future prime minister - had come to reassure Kfar Darom's residents that their tiny community would flourish.
"Even when there were no people, he told us people will come here and work here," recalled Ayoubi, 39, a mother of seven.
Sharon's prediction came true. Year after year, new families arrived, motivated by their firm belief that they were settling lands promised to the Jewish people by God. They built greenhouses, opened a vegetable packing plant, established day care centers and schools. Today Kfar Darom has 80 families.
Sharon returned regularly, laying the cornerstone in their new synagogue; comforting them when Palestinian militants fired rockets and mortars at their homes; rushing to their defense when some Israeli politicians demanded the settlement be evacuated for the safety of the settlers and the soldiers guarding them. Sharon mocked the idea of retreating, calling the Gaza settlements "the frontline of defense and the backbone of Israel."
But this month Sharon - the settlers' champion - will oversee Kfar Darom's destruction. Sharon has ordered soldiers and police to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip (plus four others in the northern West Bank) and bulldoze the homes, ending Israel's tumultuous 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.
The plan, known as "disengagement," has sown deep feelings of betrayal, anger and confusion among the settlers, who once counted Sharon among their loyal friends.
"This is not the Sharon we knew," Ayoubi says.
No one seems to know Sharon anymore.
His longtime allies on the right, who have shared Sharon's hard-line position toward the Palestinians, mistrust of peace deals and aggressive push to expand settlements, are baffled by his decision to suddenly turn his back on a major part of his life's work.
Likewise, Sharon's enemies, who long reviled him as a warmonger and an obstacle to peace, are dumbfounded that after decades of despising the old general they are the ones defending him.
To many Israelis, Sharon's decision to pull out from Gaza is an acknowledgement of a long known, if uncomfortable, truth that it is almost impossible to hold onto a sliver of land populated by only 8,500 settlers in fortified communities amid 1.3 million Palestinians.
"We have walked a long path together," Sharon told settlers recently. "We established wonderful settlements. We had a dream that we were unable to fulfill in its entirety but we succeeded in realizing a significant part of that dream."
More than a redefinition of what lands Israel will control, Sharon's plan is an admission that Israel's occupation of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, is at odds with its goals to be a democratic, peaceful Jewish state. The pullout from Gaza is another step away from hopes for coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and toward a more formal separation defined by high fences and walls.
Still, Sharon's pullout from Gaza has left many Israelis and Palestinians uneasy about what comes next. Sharon's critics on the left say the Old Warrior is tricking everyone, giving up on Gaza - a slice of land of little religious or historical importance to most Israelis - the better to secure and expand settlements in the West Bank.
Settlers and their supporters meanwhile accuse Sharon of foolishly handing Palestinian militants a victory, rewarding them with land and thereby encouraging them to mount a new campaign of violence in the West Bank.
Until now, no one has dared to dismantle major settlements here or in the West Bank, largely because it would lead to confrontations with the settlers - an impassioned, some would say spoiled, political force.
The one figure apparently determined to carry out a withdrawal, no matter what the hazards politically or personally, is Sharon, the man nicknamed the "bulldozer" for his legacy of clearing hilltops for new settlements.
"You know there are people born for music, people born for painting, people born for medicine and there is someone which is born as a leader and a brilliant commander," says Uri Dan, a journalist who became a close friend of Sharon more than 50 years ago as a fellow soldier. "Sharon enters the room, and he makes it possible."
Few other Israelis since David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and founding father, can claim to have shaped the country's history and landscape more than Sharon.
He has fought or commanded troops in every military campaign since Israel was established, from Israel's War of Independence to its disastrous experience in the Lebanon war. He was one of the founders of Israel's Likud Party and as a government minister built hundreds of settlements and outposts in the West Bank and Gaza. As prime minister, he has led an iron-fisted campaign against Palestinian militants and begun building a barrier that will separate the West Bank from Israel.
Despite all his battles, Sharon has said the decision to withdraw from Gaza is the most difficult of his life. It comes with substantial risks. Death threats to Sharon are so common that his safety has become an obsession of the country's security forces. He rarely appears in public, leaving him isolated and very much alone.
"What grieves him most of all is that all his life he stood in the front lines to defend Jewish life. Now he has to be defended against Jews," says Raanan Gissin, who, as a military officer, personal adviser and now his official spokesman, has worked with Sharon for 25 years.
Isolation has always been a part of Sharon's life. Born in 1928, Sharon was the son of Russian-Jewish pioneers who raised him on an agricultural cooperative in Kfar Malal, north of Tel Aviv.
His father, an agronomist, was a difficult, stubborn man with his own ideas about agriculture - experimenting with mangoes and mandarins when everyone else was planting lemons and oranges - that often irritated the other farmers, straining his family's relations with their neighbors. Sharon was often shunned by the other children. "The games we played in the fields and orchards stopped at the doors of their houses. I felt isolated, lonely. I wondered what their homes looked like inside," he wrote in his autobiography, Warrior.
In the military, Sharon found the friendships and closeness that he lacked at home. At age 14, in 1942, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish military underground, learning to use pistols and knives and, hiking through the Jewish and Arab villages, getting to know every hill and wadi.
By 1948, he was fighting in Israel's War of Independence when he was shot in the stomach while fighting on the road to Jerusalem, barely making it out alive. By the 1950s, he had earned the respect of his superiors, who asked him to create an elite unit designed to counter Arab attacks. He became instrumental in formulating the Israeli policy of large-scale retaliation, irrespective of borders.
This tough policy made its debut in a raid on the Jordanian village of Kibbiya in 1953 when Sharon's unit avenged the killing of a Jewish mother and her two children. During the midnight operation Sharon's troops used explosives to demolish most of the village's stone homes, killing 69 people, half of them women and children.
For the government, the Kibbiya tragedy was a national embarrassment; for Sharon it was a victory for Israel, which after years of having no response to guerrilla attacks, had demonstrated an effective, if brutal, answer.
Sharon's reputation for recklessness was reinforced, however, during the Sinai War in 1956, when he led troops in the battle of Mitla pass. Parachuting behind enemy lines, Sharon was surrounded by three Egyptian divisions. Instead of retreating as he had been ordered to do, he fought, winning the battle but at the cost of losing a fourth of his troops.
By the 1967 Six Day War, Sharon had reached the rank of general, proving himself to be a daring, imaginative soldier during the campaign that led to the capture of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But just as Sharon had achieved the success he so desired, his personal life turned into ruins. Shortly before the Jewish New Year in 1967, his 11-year-old son, Gur, was killed while playing with one of Sharon's antique shotguns.
Five years before, his first wife was killed in a car crash on the road to Jerusalem. Sharon remarried and had two sons with his second wife, Lily, who died in 2000.
'King of Israel'
As a soldier, his greatest military victory came in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Sharon's armored division made a daring crossing of the Suez Canal to take Egyptian forces from behind, securing Israel's victory. Ignoring orders, he then attacked the supply lines of the Egyptian troops, advancing to within 60 miles of Cairo.
Sharon emerged from the war a national hero. "Sharon, King of Israel," became a common refrain among his troops. He quickly turned his popularity into political gain, winning a seat in parliament before being chosen to serve as a security adviser and agriculture minister, the position he used to begin promoting settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
As Minister of Defense, one of his first jobs was to evacuate the Sinai settlement of Yamit when the area was returned to Egypt in 1982. Asked by an interviewer at the time how he would manage to evacuate the settlers, most of them refusing to go, Sharon responded: "We'll tell them Sharon is coming."
Sharon had been considered a likely candidate to someday become prime minister. But in 1982, he led the country into an unpopular war in Lebanon, creating unprecedented levels of dissension within the army and sending troops all the way to Beirut, in an effort to destroy Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization.
The PLO fled Lebanon, but as part of a violent settling of accounts, Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinians at two refugee camps under Israeli control. In 1983, an Israeli commission investigating the atrocities found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killing, forcing him to step down.
To his critics, the Lebanon war was a disaster that fractured Israeli society. They believed the problems had their roots in Sharon's checkered military record as an uncompromising, often brilliant, soldier undermined by his self-righteousness and disdain for authority.
"His immense energy, his indefatigability and his stubborn zeal in seeking high office were always offset by his parallel drive towards destruction, even self-destruction," wrote Uzi Benziman, author of Ariel Sharon: An Israeli Caesar.
Like many others among Sharon's old army colleagues, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak expresses admiration for Sharon's talent for planning and executing complicated missions, military and political. Even now Sharon spends much of his time fussing over the details of the disengagement plan.
But Barak says Sharon has always failed to consider the consequences of his actions. "Sharon is an excellent tactician, but he has no strategy," Barak told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this year.
Sharon erred in Lebanon, Barak maintains, and he made another grievous mistake in scattering settlements across the West Bank rather than concentrating them in one defensible area: "Those isolated settlements are a classic case of biting off more than one can chew," said Barak. "The disengagement plan is actually Sharon's admission of his life's error."
For almost any other politician, costly failures like the Lebanon war would have meant an unceremonious end to a career. But not for Sharon. He bided his time, accepting various government posts from Likud prime ministers. Although not religious himself, Sharon threw his support behind the religious settlers. He believed the settlements were important for security, and he aggressively developed Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza, telling settlers to "grab more hills, expand the territory," often without government permission.
During the 1990s, Sharon was viewed as extremist, a political has-been and out of step with the renewed efforts to secure peace agreements with the Palestinians. At the Wye River peace talks in Maryland, he refused to shake Yasser Arafat's hand. At the time of the Camp David talks in 2000, Sharon stirred up opposition to Barak back home, warning that the prime minister was ready to hand over Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
Sharon's visit to the plaza in front of the Aqsa mosque, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is blamed for helping trigger the Palestinian uprising in 2000. But the violence pushed the Israeli electorate into his arms as it searched for a leader tough enough to fight back. He won a landslide victory to become prime minister in February 2001.
At 77, Sharon is a man of sizable girth who enters the room heavily, his figure rocking from side to side like a sumo wrestler stepping into the ring. At a recent news conference, Sharon wore a navy suit, with the pants hiked well over his waist. His jowls dominate his face, his head covered by a flap of snowy white hair.
Despite rumors of ill health, he appears robust, alert and as always a man of huge appetites. His dinner guests are regularly shocked by the amount of food he can consume in one sitting.
Well aware of his image as "someone who eats Arabs for breakfast," as he once said, Sharon in his political comeback included a personality makeover that fostered his image as a grandfather, happiest on his farm managing his cows and sheep. Still, when President Bush called him "a man of peace," many of his longtime critics scoffed.
Sharon is the "ultimate opportunist," says Yossi Sarid, a prominent left-wing member of parliament and a longtime critic of the prime minister. "In previous times he saw the future was with the settlers. Later on he realized the future is not with them because they are not the favorite sons of Israel, so he should change in order to survive."
Sharon's friends, however, say his change was genuine. With age, came humility. Sharon is no longer so eager to prove to lesser minds that they are inferior. In person, even his critics say, he is tremendously warm and likeable.
After his election, Sharon showed no signs of giving up on the settlements. But by 2003, after months of violence and a stalled peace process, Sharon surprised nearly everyone by unveiling his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from some of the settlements.
"To evacuate Gaza altogether - I'll be honest, this goes beyond my wildest expectations," says Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace, reflecting on Sharon's decision. "This does not mean what he's aiming at is a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians, though maybe he will surprise us again."
To push his plan through, Sharon turned against his own political party, the Likud, forcing him to create a coalition government with the Labor Party.
"I have repeatedly and openly said that I am willing to make painful compromises in order to put an end to this ongoing and malignant conflict between those who struggle over this land, and that I would do my utmost in order to bring peace," he said last year before crucial votes on the plan in Israel's parliament. "I have learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land."
Poll after poll has shown that more than half of Israelis support the withdrawal. A recent survey by Tel Aviv University's Herzog Institute for Media, Society and Politics revealed the majority of the Israeli public, 57 percent, think that in retrospect Israel should not have established any settlements in Gaza.
One glance at Kfar Darom, and it is clear why. Girdled by camouflaged machine gun towers, platoons of soldiers and concrete barriers, it resembles a military base more than a home for 500 people.
Although many Israelis sympathize with the settlers, they do not support the sacrifices the soldiers and the country have made to sustain the settlers' way of life.
Settlers don't see it that way, claiming that a retreat from Kfar Darom is no different than evacuating Tel Aviv. Both places are Israeli land and should be protected, they say. And just how far the settlers and their supporters are willing to go to stop Sharon's plan is a question worrying the government.
"Don't underestimate the opposition. It's a very strong, intense, determined, well organized minority, probably the strongest lobby in Israel that ever existed," says Gissin, Sharon's long-time adviser.
A divided county
Sharon now rules a deeply divided country. Drive down any street in Israel and there are orange ribbons - the symbol for opposition to Sharon's plan - fluttering from car antennas, light posts and book bags. Although not as numerous, blue ribbons - a show of support for Sharon - are visible too.
In Kfar Darom, Yamima Cohen Ayoubi and the rest of the settlers here are vowing not to leave, believing that God will save them. She has not packed any boxes or made plans for new housing. While other settlers dismantle greenhouses, relocate businesses and find new homes, here they say they are simply ignoring the evacuation order.
"I can't think about it. I think about bringing up my children here. I think about seeing my grandchildren here," she says.
In the weeks before the turmoil of evacuation begins, Sharon, for his part, is doing his best to win back his old friends like Ayoubi, although his efforts to meet with them have been rejected by most settler leaders. Many analysts predict this is just a warm-up before Sharon steers back to the right wing before the next election.
Last month Sharon visited the West Bank settlement called Ariel encouraging them to build more homes and expand - as he did not so long ago in Kfar Darom.
"This bloc," he said, "will forever be part of the State of Israel. There is no other thought. No other plan. I came here in order to make every effort to check how this town can be expanded and how this bloc can be strengthened."
He sounded a lot like the Sharon everyone once knew.Upcoming coverage
The Sun's Middle East correspondent, John Murphy, will cover events in the region as Israel evacuates settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. His reports this week will include a look at the Palestinians' and Israelis' differing expectations about Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.