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“What my parents did exude was strength, determination and stubbornness,” he recalled in his 1989 autobiography, “Warrior.” Supporters and adversaries alike attributed these traits in later years to their son.

He joined the informal Jewish defense organization as a teenager and got his first taste of war in the Arab-Israeli clashes of 1948-49. A 20-year-old platoon leader, Mr. Sharon in April 1948 was wounded in a failed attempt to end a blockade by Jordanian troops of a key supply line.

Israel achieved its independence in the war, but Mr. Sharon never would forget the poor planning, intelligence and training of the Israeli forces in that early skirmish, making it a lifelong crusade to fashion Israel’s military into a world-class fighting force. He tried to return to his studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University but was called back into service in the new Israeli Defense Forces in 1953 to deal with continued Arab cross-border raids.

Israeli army chief Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion personally endorsed the selection of the bold young soldier to head a new commando unit to counter the raids. Mr. Sharon later recalled that it was where he first conceived of the necessity of maximum retaliation in the face of threats to national security.

“I came to believe that whenever we were forced to strike, we should do so with the aim of inflicting heavy losses on enemy troops, … to convince the Arabs that war was futile, that aggression would bring nothing but humiliation and destruction,” he wrote.

It was in 1953 when a Sharon-led military strike first led to international controversy.

Responding to an attack inside Israel, Mr. Sharon’s commandos entered the Jordanian village of Qibya, ordered residents to leave and dynamited dozens of homes. The attack sparked international condemnation when it was learned later that 50 villagers who had not evacuated were killed in the blasts.

Popular with his troops but often frustrated by his superiors, Mr. Sharon repeatedly in his military career would exceed or even disobey orders in the heat of battle, almost always preferring the most aggressive tactical approach. His willingness to flout orders and defy his superiors slowed his advance through the ranks, but Israeli commanders repeatedly turned to Mr. Sharon in times of military crisis.

Typical of his operating style was Mr. Sharon’s decision as a brigade commander in the 1956 Suez War against Egyptian forces occupying a key pass on the Sinai Peninsula. Ordered only to reconnoiter the pass, Mr. Sharon was later accused of provoking a major battle in which his forces seized control of the pass but suffered heavy casualties.

Still, while obtaining a law degree from Tel Aviv University, Mr. Sharon was named chief of staff of Israel’s Northern Command in 1964 and put in charge of training for the Israeli army two years later.

But Mr. Sharon’s reputation as a military tactician of genius was sealed by his performance in Israel’s victories in the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Triumphs and tragedies

In the first conflict, Maj. Gen. Sharon commanded an armored unit that overwhelmed Egyptian forces on the Sinai in a lightning strike, key to an overwhelming victory that put the Sinai, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Syria’s Golan Heights under Israeli control. Mr. Sharon’s maneuvers that fateful week are still studied in military colleges around the world.

Under pressure from senior Israeli commanders still unhappy with his free-lancing ways, Mr. Sharon resigned from the service in 1972 and purchased a modest ranch in the northern Negev Desert that was to become his personal retreat.

But he was abruptly called back in October 1973 after a surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Again exceeding his orders, Mr. Sharon advanced deep behind Egyptian lines and helped cut off an entire Egyptian army. He vehemently criticized his political superiors for accepting a U.S.-Soviet cease-fire before his troops could consolidate their gains.

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