JERUSALEM -- Rafael Eitan, a blunt former Israeli army chief and Cabinet minister who opposed any compromise with the Palestinians, drowned yesterday after being swept into the stormy Mediterranean while working at a port. He was 75.
Mr. Eitan, known to Israelis as "Raful," was working on expanding the southern port of Ashdod when he was swept off a breakwater, port officials said. He was on the breakwater to check whether equipment had been damaged in a storm.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described Mr. Eitan as a man "whose story was the story of this country."
Mr. Eitan began his 37-year army service in the pre-state Palmach militia at the age of 16, serving in most of the country's wars until he became army chief in 1978. He was wounded four times in combat, and soldiers who served under him described him as fearless.
"The state of Israel lost today a courageous fighter, commander, and leader," Sharon said in a statement. "I lost a friend in arms and in my way."
Mr. Eitan scorned the luxury and high living for which some senior officers developed a taste, particularly in the flush of victory after the 1967 Mideast war. Even as a general, a folding camp bed was more than enough for him.
He was a strict disciplinarian. When troops returned from night raids against the PLO in Lebanon, he was always there to meet them.
He was also blunt on his views on relations with the Arabs. Once he referred to Palestinians as "drugged cockroaches in a bottle."
Mr. Eitan's retirement from the army in 1983 was overshadowed by an investigation into the massacre of Palestinian refugees by an Israeli-allied Christian militia during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The Kahan Commission found that Mr. Eitan should have anticipated the danger and opposed the decision to send the Christians into the camp.
After leaving the army, he formed the hardline Tzomet party and was known for his opposition to transferring land to the Palestinians in peace deals. He served as agriculture and environment minister in the 1990s.
Mr. Eitan left politics to work in his olive grove and build rocking horses at a wood shop in his birthplace of Tel Adashim, a moshav, or cooperative farm, in northern Israel. In an interview in 2001, Mr. Eitan said "nothing is missing in my life."
In recent years, the former general had taken out a fishing license and oversaw the port expansion project. He was on the job at the Ashdod port, working alongside laborers every day, port officials said.
In 1997, Mr. Eitan surprised many Israelis when he announced that his mother was a descendant of the Russian czar's bodyguards, raising the possibility he was not Jewish.
Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit ordered an investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Eitan's death. But police said they did not suspect foul play.
Mr. Eitan's funeral was to take place today at Tel Adashim.