A girl cries as she stands in front of Ariel Sharon's
coffin outside the Knesset in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen
Thousands of Israelis have bidden farewell to former
prime minister Ariel Sharon, the maverick warrior-statesman who
helped reshape the Middle East, as his body lay in state
outside parliament in Jerusalem.
Sharon died at the age of 85 on Saturday (local time) after
eight years in a coma caused by a stroke he suffered at the
pinnacle of his political power. He will be buried on Monday
in a military funeral on his farm in southern Israel.
"They say old soldiers do not die, they fade away. Arik
Sharon faded away eight years ago, and now we truly say
goodbye to him," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, using Sharon's
nickname, wrote in a tribute on Sunday.
Sharon was one of Israel's finest military strategists and
most powerful and decisive political figures. He spearheaded
military campaigns in several wars with the Arab world,
expanded Jewish settlement-building on land the Palestinians
want for a state, and made the shock decision to withdraw
from one of those territories, the Gaza Strip.
Famously beefy and brusque, Sharon was also widely hated by
Arabs for what they regarded as harsh and aggressive
policies, including a 1982 invasion of Lebanon in a bid to
stamp out Palestinian guerrillas as well as military
crackdowns and settlement-building in occupied territories.
Prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Sharon was incapacitated by
a stroke shortly after he quit the right-wing Likud party and
founded a centrist faction to advance peace with the
Palestinians, whose 2000-2005 "Intifada" uprising he had
battled with air strikes and fierce military offensives.
In parliament's main plaza, Israelis filed past Sharon's
coffin, which was draped in the blue-and-white national flag.
The mood was sombre but not deeply mournful, eight years
after Sharon fell from public view. A few in the crowd wept,
but many others paused to snap photographs of the coffin with
"Whatever he decided to do, he followed it through to the end
- and that was his greatness," said Shlomo Tal, 74, from
Jerusalem, who came to parliament to pay his respects.
LOVED AND HATED
Sharon drew the long-standing enmity of Arabs over the 1982
massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and
Shatila camp in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen
allied to Israel, where he was defence minister at the time.
A lifelong farmer renowned for his big appetite, Sharon was
known as "the Bulldozer", in part for his headlong pursuit of
hardline policies that included a major growth in settlements
across terrain Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
But the United States and other foreign powers mourned him as
a peacemaker in later life, noting his pursuit of dialogue
with the Palestinians. Negotiations continue under Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though gaps remain wide.
"He was bound to the land. He knew that the land must be
protected. And he understood above all else that our
existence is predicated on our ability to protect ourselves
by ourselves," Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday after
ministers stood for a minute's silence as a mark of honour.
Many Israelis will remember Sharon as a brilliant but
unpredictable military leader who fought in the 1948 war of
Israel's founding and, rising to general, went on to earn a
reputation for trigger-happy disobedience on some occasions.
But he was also hailed in Israel for the crucial
counter-attack across the Suez Canal that helped to turn the
tide of the 1973 Middle East war with Egypt and Syria.
In 1983 an Israeli state inquiry found Sharon indirectly
responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and
he had to resign as defence minister. But he gradually
re-emerged from the political wilderness, serving as foreign
minister in the late 1990s.
"The Palestinian people remember what Sharon did and tried to
do to our people and their dream of forming a state," Wael
Abu Yousef, a senior member of the umbrella Palestine
Liberation Organisation, told Reuters.
Palestinians in Gaza handed out sweets to passersby and
motorists in celebration of Sharon's passing.
"We have become more confident in victory with the departure
of this tyrant (Sharon)," said Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesman for
Hamas, the Islamist faction governing Gaza.
A memorial service will be held in parliament on Monday
before an afternoon funeral at the Sharon family's Sycamore
Farm. Israeli generals will serve as pallbearers.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden headed to Israel on Sunday and
was due to deliver a eulogy for Sharon at Monday's service in
Among other foreign dignitaries expected to attend the
ceremony were Mideast peace mediator and former British prime
minister Tony Blair, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier and delegates from Russia, Canada, Spain, Italy,
Greece, Australia, Singapore, Belgium and the Czech Republic.
"As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join
with the Israeli people in honouring his commitment to his
country," said U.S. President Barack Obama.
"We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel's security
and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our
two countries," said Obama, whose relationship with Netanyahu
has been strained by issues such as Iran's disputed nuclear
programme and Israeli settlement-building on occupied land.
Palestinians also accuse Sharon of triggering their
"Intifada" with a provocative visit to the al Aqsa mosque
plaza in Jerusalem's Old City in 2000, a year before he was
elected prime minister.
He further angered them with a crushing army sweep of
Palestinian self-rule areas of the West Bank in 2002 after a
spate of Palestinian suicide bombings, and with his siege of
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound.
But Sharon surprised friend and foe alike by withdrawing
soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 under a policy of
"disengagement" from conflict and a pursuit of dialogue with
The pullout, however, led to Gaza's takeover by Hamas, which,
unlike the West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas, spurns
co-existence with Israel and often trades fire with it.
Sharon was also resented by many Jewish settlers who once
regarded him as their champion. Israeli media quoted lawmaker
Orit Strouk of the Jewish Home, an ultranationalist party in
Netanyahu's coalition, as thanking God that Sharon was
removed from power before he could order withdrawals from the
West Bank. The remarks sparked outrage and she later
As Sharon's finance minister in 2005, Netanyahu resigned in
protest at the Gaza pullout. Netanyahu points to Hamas's rise
as vindication of his stance.