HUNDREDS OF ISRAELI and international dignitaries attended a state memorial ceremony for the late Ariel Sharon today, remembering the former prime minister as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting his country’s security.
Later today, Sharon’s body will be taken from the Knesset to his farm in southern Israel for burial.
Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85-years-old.
One of Israel’s greatest and most divisive figures, Sharon rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister in his final years. He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. His backers called him a war hero. His detractors, first and foremost the Palestinians, considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed.
The speakers at today’s ceremony largely glossed over the controversy that surrounded Sharon, and instead focused on his leadership and personality.
“I didn’t always agree with Arik and he didn’t always agree with me,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon’s government to protest the Gaza withdrawal. Nonetheless, he called Sharon “one of the big warriors” for the nation of Israel.
“He was pragmatic. His pragmatism was rooted in deep emotion, deep emotion for the state, for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said.
Nearly 10 years on, the withdrawal from Gaza remains hotly debated in Israeli society. Supporters say Israel is better off not being bogged down in the crowded territory, which is now home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
In a reminder of the precarious security situation, Palestinian militants today fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel is within range of such projectiles but today’s missiles did not hit Israel. No injuries or damage were reported.
In a heartfelt address, Vice President Joe Biden talked about a decades-long friendship with Sharon, saying the death felt “like a death in the family”.
Sharon’s coffin has been lying in state at the Knesset’s outdoor plaza where Israelis from all walks of life paid respects throughout Sunday.