U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister
Tony Blair joined the somber ceremony in front of the Israeli
parliament, Sharon's coffin draped in Israel's blue and white flag,
bathed in winter sunshine.
"We are accompanying to his final resting place today, a soldier, an
exceptional soldier, a commander who knew how to win," said Israeli
President Shimon Peres.
Sharon, 85, died on Saturday after spending the last eight years of
his life motionless in a hospital bed, pitched into a coma by a
stroke and far from the public gaze.
His death has reopened debate into his legacy, with foes denouncing
his ruthless conduct in military operations while friends praised
him as a strategic genius who had stunned the world in 2005 by
pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip — a
Palestinian territory in the south.
"The security of his people was always Arik's unwavering mission — a
non-breakable commitment to the future of Jews, whether 30 years or
300 years from now," Biden said, using Sharon's nickname.
There was no direct mention of some of the controversies that have
clung to Sharon's name through the years, although in his eulogy,
Blair said a man widely known at home as "the bulldozer" had left
"considerable debris in his wake".
Biden referred simply to his "mistakes", saying: "History will judge
that he also lived in complex times, in a very complex
The Israeli foreign ministry said dignitaries had come from 21
countries, mainly in Europe, but did not list any delegations from
the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.
After the memorial service at parliament, Sharon's body was loaded
into a military van for the drive to the family's farm in southern
Israel, some 10 km (6 miles) from Gaza, for burial.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting he had not always seen
eye-to-eye with Sharon on policy matters, hailed the former leader's
commitment to Israel's security.
"Arik understood that in matters of our existence and security, we
must stand firm," Netanyahu said.
"Israel will continue to fight terror. Israel will continue to
strive for peace, while protecting our security. Israel will act in
every way to deny Iran the capability of arming itself with nuclear
Famously beefy and brusque, Sharon was widely hated by Arabs,
particularly for Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when hundreds of
Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were
killed by Israeli-allied Christian militiamen.
Sharon was forced to stand down as defense minister in 1983 after an
Israeli investigation said he bore "personal responsibility" for not
preventing the massacre.
Written off at the time, he soon bounced back and served as prime
minister from 2001 until he was felled by a stroke.
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Neither Netanyahu nor Peres mentioned the Lebanon war or
disengagement from Gaza, which showed that Israel could roll back
its occupation of the Palestinian territories given determined
leadership. Both Biden and Blair hailed the pullout.
However, one of Sharon's friends, settler leader Zeev Hever, made
clear the sense of hurt felt by some Israelis.
"Your disengagement in the final two years of your term from the
path we had walked together was particularly difficult and painful,"
he told mourners.
Two years after Israel quit Gaza, the Islamist group Hamas seized
control, calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel has
beefed up security for Sharon's burial and warned Hamas not to allow
rocket fire during the ceremony.
"It was made clear to them that ... it would be a very bad day for
anyone there to test Israel's patience," said an Israeli security
source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Reuters correspondent heard two explosions in northern Gaza on
Monday morning which sounded like rocket impacts. An Israeli
military spokeswoman said there had been no launches across the
border. Israeli media said the blasts appeared to have resulted from
Palestinian militants testing their weapons.
How to handle Gaza is among the sticking points in Israel's
U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas, Hamas's rival based in the occupied West Bank.
During his brief visit to Israel, Biden will discuss the so far
fruitless diplomatic efforts with Netanyahu and Peres, U.S.
The vice president will also seek to ease Netanyahu's concerns about
world powers' interim nuclear deal with Israel's arch-foe Iran,
which takes effect on January 20.
Sharon and Peres are the last of the so-called 1948-generation of
leaders who played a prominent role in Israeli public life right from the
foundation of the nation.
"He left us too soon. But the work of trying to reach peace
continues," said Biden, hinting that had Sharon stayed healthy, he
might have ended the decades-old Middle East conflict.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, editing by Jeffrey Heller)
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