Israel bids farewell to Ariel Sharon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 1:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 4:42pm

Israeli officials and international dignitaries bid farewell to the late Ariel Sharon at a state ceremony yesterday, remembering the controversial former prime minister as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting his country's security.

US Vice-President Joe Biden and former British prime minister Tony Blair headed the list of visitors who attended the ceremony outside Israel's parliament building.

"Arik was a man of the land," President Shimon Peres, a long-time friend and sometimes rival of Sharon, 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."

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

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.

Watch: Memorial service for Sharon outside Israeli parliament

Taking to the podium wearing a black Jewish skullcap to address the crowd, Biden remembered Sharon as a "historic leader" whose guiding star was "the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people".

"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, although in his eulogy, Blair said a man widely known at home as "the bulldozer" had left "considerable debris in his wake".

"Tough but shy, indomitable but a servant to his people," Blair said. "He was a giant in this land."

Biden referred simply to his "mistakes", saying: "History will judge that he also lived in complex times, in a very complex neighbourhood."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting he had not always seen eye to eye with Sharon on policy, hailed his commitment to Israel's security.

"I didn't always agree with Arik and he didn't always agree with me," said Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon's government to protest the Gaza withdrawal. Nonetheless, he called Sharon "one of the big warriors" for the nation of Israel".

"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 weapons."

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.

Although many have never forgiven him, Zeev Hever, a veteran settler leader who spoke at the memorial, hailed the many years Sharon had fought to build up the settlements. "You taught the Jewish people how to fight and then how to settle," he said, describing him as "the father of the settlement movement".

"Your disengagement from our shared path ... was difficult and painful. The questions remain unanswered, the pain is great, but a deep love covers everything," he said.

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.

Following the memorial, his coffin was taken by convoy for a military ceremony at a site in Latrun on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, where Sharon was wounded in the 1948 war of independence.

The convoy then went to Sharon's ranch for a military funeral where he was buried next to his second wife, Lily.

Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse