Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described Yasir Arafat's death on Thursday as a turning point for the Middle East as Israelis marked the end of an era in relations with the Palestinians.

"Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue its efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without delay," he said.

Although declining to even refer to his old foe by name, Sharon expressed hope that the Palestinians would work towards "stopping terrorism", which he described as a precondition for the peace process.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who attempted to negotiate a peace deal with Arafat at Camp David, described him as a corrupt leader whose worst sin was the "poisoning of the souls of the young Palestinians with a burning hatred for Israel".

Barak underlined that Arafat's death opened up new opportunities for the country - and for the peace process.

"Today the Palestinians have the possibility to take their fate in their hands to lead to a reduction in the terror and a return to negotiations," he said. "Only time will tell if they succeed to reach these goals."

Violence v peacemaking

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres recalled how the Palestinian leader constantly wavered between violence and peacemaking, seeking always to remain a popular leader.

Peres, Arafat and late-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shared a Nobel Peace prize in 1994 for signing an interim peace deal.

"The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace"

Shimon Peres,
Former Israeli prime minister

"The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror," Peres told Israel Radio.

"His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace."

However, some Israelis such as Dani Rakoff, 36, were pleased by the news of Arafat's death.

"It's certainly not a solution to our problems, but when any murderer of Jewish people dies, it's a celebration," Rakoff said. "I'm happy he's dead."

Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid blamed the Palestinian leader for the spread of global terrorism and the failure to achieve Middle East peace.

Bitterness and scorn

"I hated him for the deaths of thousands of Israelis," Lapid told Israel Radio. "I hated him for preventing the peace agreements between us and the Palestinians.

"One of the tragedies of the world is that it didn't understand that the terrorism that began here would spread to the entire world," he added.

While Palestinians mourned Arafat as the symbol of their aspirations, Israeli Jews poured bitterness and scorn on the man they called the "master terrorist" and blamed for the deaths of hundreds of their kin.

"If I thought it all began and ended with him I could be happy. But we know there are millions waiting to take his place, and nothing will change"

Jewish settler Hanna

"I don't even think hell would take him," said Moti Cohen, who holds Arafat personally responsible for a bombing that killed his friend as he drove a bus in Jerusalem two years ago. "Every step he took was to destroy our people."

"Deep down, I feel happy," said Moshe, a Jerusalem shopkeeper. "He invented terrorism and thought that through violence he would get his way. He failed."

But many ordinary Israelis said they feared Arafat's death would only bring them more of the bombings that have become the Palestinians' deadliest weapon in their uprising.

"If I thought it all began and ended with him I could be happy," said Hanna, a Jewish settler from the northern West Bank. "But we know there are millions waiting to take his place, and nothing will change."