Israel bids subdued farewell to its 'great leader' Sharon
Israelis paid their last respects to Ariel Sharon yesterday as his body lay in state outside the Knesset, the national parliament, following his death at the age of 85.
In a subdued event that contrasted with the boisterous nature of his career, a steady trickle of mourners filed past Mr Sharon's coffin as it sat, draped in an Israeli flag in front of the Knesset.
There were no outward signs of emotion as many people took pictures of the closed coffin, which had earlier been saluted by eight army generals.
The initial turnout appeared modest as visitors were admitted following a wreath-laying ceremony conducted by Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, and Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker.
"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 yesterday.
The ceremony was organised before a state funeral to be held today, which will include a memorial service at the Knesset attended by international dignitaries including Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, Joe Biden, the US vice-president, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister.
Mr Sharon, who became prime minister from 2001 to 2006, died on Saturday after spending the last eight years of his life in a coma following 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.
He will be buried at his ranch in the Negev desert next to the grave of his late wife, Lily.
Mr 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.
Israelis of all ages gave a variety of reasons for paying homage to one of Israel's most controversial figures.
Some acknowledged that he had made serious mistakes, but many agreed that he showed a strength of leadership unique in their country's 65-year history. "He was a great man. He did a lot of things that were good for the country and maybe some things that were not," said Ronen Yekutieal (25) a law student.
"He was the last real leader that grew up here and there will be no other leader like him in the years ahead." (© Daily Telegraph, London)