1967 was Sharon's finest hour, when the former army officer orchestrated the capture of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from Jordan and Egypt in the Six Day War. But his audacity has sometimes backfired. As defence minister in 1982, he ordered Israel's invasion of Lebanon, leading to the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militias. And his provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, is blamed for triggering the second intifada in 2000.
Sharon's re-election as Prime Minister this year by a demoralised Israeli electorate is due to his uncompromising position against terrorism. But his reprisals against Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel have raised protests around the world. As well as the use of 'collective punishment'
against families, towns and villages of those implicated in terror attacks, the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group and Jerusalem Centre for Human Rights are putting the total number of Palestinians killed since 2000 at 2,805, including 537 children under 18. The total number of Israelis killed in suicide and other terror attacks is 750, 93 of whom are under 18. Both figures include soldiers and combatants.
Arafat, a secular Arab, has been as driven by Palestinian nationalism as Sharon has been by Zionism. In 1958, he helped found Al-Fatah, an underground organisation committed to armed struggle against Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which he has led since 1969. In 1988, he renounced terrorism to the United Nations and has been involved in peace talks with the Israelis since then, jointly winning, with Israeli leaders, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 as a result of the Oslo Accords agreement.
But peace has always been fleeting, despite the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, with Arafat as president in 1996. His failure to control militants has effectively put him under Israeli house arrest in his official residence in Ramallah. Like Sharon, a cloud of corruption hangs over him.
Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, is, like Arafat, an old Al-Fatah veteran and became his successor as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority last April. A moderate who has spent years at negotiating tables with the Israelis, his commitment to the Road Map is being nullified by his failure to control militants (see below) and Israel's retaliations against terror attacks.
The main militia organisations - Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Al-Fatah, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - have their own identities, ideologies and affiliations. Some, such as Al-Fatah and Al Aqsa Martyrs, are secular, while the others are Islamist.
What unites them is their determination to create a free and autonomous Palestinian state. Most but not all of these groups are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state in order to achieve their ends.