independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Dignitaries attend Sharon memorial

US vice president Joe Biden gives a speech next to the coffin of late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem

Israel has said its last farewell to Ariel Sharon with a state ceremony outside the parliament building before his flag-draped coffin was taken on a cross-country procession to its final resting place at his family home in the country's south.

With a crowd of VIPs and international dignitaries on hand, Mr Sharon was eulogised as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting Israel's security. US vice president Joe Biden and Tony Blair headed the long list of visitors.

Mr Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85.

One of Israel's greatest and most divisive figures, Mr Sharon rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister at the time of his stroke.

He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. But in a surprising about-face, he led a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after a 38-year presence in a move he said was necessary to ensure Israel's security.

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 the ceremony outside parliament largely glossed over the controversy, and instead focused on his leadership and personality "Arik was a man of the land," president Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and sometimes rival, said in his eulogy. "He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe. He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land."

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Mr Sharon's Cabinet in protest the Gaza withdrawal, said that he and Mr Sharon did not always agree with each other. Nonetheless, he called Mr Sharon "one of the big warriors" for the nation of Israel.

"Arik was a man of actions, pragmatic, and his pragmatism was rooted in deep emotion, deep emotion for the country and deep emotion for the Jewish people," Mr Netanyahu said.

In a reminder of the precarious security situation, Palestinian militants fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip. Mr Sharon 's ranch in southern Israel, where his body was being laid to rest, is within range of such projectiles, though but Monday's missiles did not hit Israel. No injuries or damage were reported.

Mr Blair, now an international envoy to the Middle East, said Mr Sharon 's "strategic objective" never changed. "The same iron determination he took to the field of war he took to the chamber of diplomacy. Bold. Unorthodox. Unyielding," he said.

Mr Sharon's coffin lay in state at the Knesset's outdoor plaza where Israelis from all walks of life paid respects throughout Sunday.

After the ceremony ended, the closed coffin, draped in a blue and white Israeli flag, was placed in a military vehicle and driven in a police-escorted convoy toward Mr Sharon 's ranch.

Crowds stood along the roadside and on bridges, snapping pictures and getting a final glimpse of the coffin as the procession of vehicles left Jerusalem and snaked down the highway outside the city's picturesque hills.

The convoy made a brief stop at Latrun, the site of a bloody battle where Mr Sharon was wounded during Israel's war of independence in 1948, for a brief military ceremony before continuing south.

-AP

Press Association

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