Israelis pay last respects to founding father Ariel Sharon
Israelis were on Sunday paying their respects to Ariel Sharon, whose controversial life inspired admiration and provoked revulsion and whose death drew emotional reactions even after eight years in a coma.
Celebrated as a military hero at home, recognised as a pragmatic politician abroad and despised as a bloodthirsty criminal by the Palestinians and the Arab world, the former premier was nothing if not a polarising figure.
But Israelis of all stripes acknowledged the burly 85-year-old as a key figure in their nation’s history, his death on Saturday leaving left President Shimon Peres as the Jewish state’s last surviving founding father.
Ahead of his funeral on Monday, Sharon’s body was to lie in state at the Knesset, or parliament, between 1000 GMT and 1600 GMT to allow the public to pay their last respects, the premier’s office said.
His coffin left the Tzrifin military base en route for Jerusalem on Sunday morning, with Peres expected to pay his respects and lay a wreath shortly before the arrival of the public, officials said.
He will be buried on Monday afternoon at his ranch in the southern Negev desert after a military ceremony.
The burly white-haired former general had been in coma since January 4, 2006, following a massive stroke which felled him at the height of his political career. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse on New Year’s Day when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.
Sharon’s dramatic story was the subject of blanket coverage in the Israeli press on Sunday, with the papers dedicating multiple pages to pictures and commentary on his life and legacy.
World leaders sent condolences over his death, remembering the controversial figure in cautious diplomatic language, with Vice President Joe Biden expected to represent Washington at a special memorial at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday morning.
Others expected to attend were German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, outgoing Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair as well as other diplomats from Spain, Russia and Canada.
Sharon was once known chiefly as a ruthless military leader who fought in all of Israel’s major wars, before switching to politics in 1973 and championing the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
He was long considered a pariah for his personal but “indirect” responsibility in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
His early career as a warrior earned him the moniker “The Bulldozer” but most world leaders chose to remember the politician who surprised many by masterminding the pullout from Gaza in 2005.
“Bulldozer in war and peace,” said the English-language Jerusalem Post, describing him as “perhaps the most revered and often reviled of the country’s politicians, perceived alternately as a peacemaker and a warmonger.”
“The last leader,” wrote another commentator in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, noting that the political vacuum created by his collapse eight years ago “has never really been filled and it is doubtful that it will be filled in the foreseeable future.”
Even Gideon Levy, arguably Sharon’s bitterest Israeli critic, paid his respects.
“He was certainly Israel’s most courageous politician. He was also its cruellest. He was the leader who used brute force more than anyone to achieve his policies. But he was also one of few to recognise the limits of force,” he wrote in Haaretz.
In one of the more thoughtful tributes to Sharon, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to build on his “legacy of pragmatism” to achieve a viable Palestinian state.
The Palestinians were quick to welcome the news which prompted an outburst of celebration in the Gaza Strip, where the ruling Islamist Hamas movement said it was a “historic moment” marking the “disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood”.
One of the last members of the generation that founded the Jewish state in 1948, Sharon leaves a complex legacy which also includes the sprawling barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.
His policy of separation from the Palestinians culminated in the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza, a bold move that earned him the hatred of his former nationalist and settler allies.
Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to immigrants from Belarus, Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.