Israelis pay respects to Sharon
Israelis flocked to parliament today to catch a glimpse of Ariel Sharon's coffin and pay their final respects to the former prime minister and general.
A stream of visitors ranging from former army comrades to political allies to ordinary citizens remembered Mr Sharon as a decisive leader, for better or for worse, and one of the final heroes of Israel's founding generation.
"Words escape me. He was just a man who was larger than life," said Shlomo Mann, 68, who served under his command in the 1973 Mideast war. "Those who didn't know him from up close can't truly understand what a legend he was. There will never be anyone else like him."
The 85-year-old died last night eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma.
In a career that stretched across much of Israel's 65-year existence, his life was closely intertwined with the country's history. He was a leader known for his exploits on the battlefield, masterminding Israel's invasion of Lebanon, building Jewish settlements on war-won land and then, late in life, destroying some that he deemed no longer useful when he withdrew from the Gaza Strip.
As one of Israel's most famous generals, the man known as "Arik" was renowned for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders. To his supporters, he was a war hero; to his critics, a war criminal.
As prime minister late in life, he was embraced by the public as a grandfatherly figure who provided stability in times of turmoil.
"Arik was, first and foremost, a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish people's greatest generals in the current era and throughout its history," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce political rival of Mr Sharon in the Likud Party. "I think he represents the generation of Jewish warriors that arose for our people upon the resumption of our independence."
President Shimon Peres - a lifelong friend and rival - and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Mr Sharon after the 2006 stroke, were among those who paused before the closed flag-draped coffin displayed in a plaza in front of the Knesset and surrounded by an honour guard. But the event was mostly an occasion for everyday Israelis to honour him.
A state memorial is planned for tomnorrow at parliament followed by a funeral service at Mr Sharon's ranch in southern Israel. Under Jewish law, funerals are to be carried out as soon as possible. But in a ritual reserved only for former prime ministers and presidents of Israel, the coffin lays in state at parliament to allow citizens to bid farewell.
US vice president Joe Biden, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others are expected to attend the ceremonies.
President Barack Obama remembered Mr Sharon's "commitment to his country".
"We join with the Israeli people in honouring his commitment to his country," Mr Obama said. He also used the occasion to reaffirm "our unshakeable commitment to Israel's security".
The president said: " We continue to strive for a lasting peace and security for the people of Israel."