Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s body lay in state on Sunday outside parliament in Jerusalem, where thousands of Israelis waited to bid farewell to the maverick warrior-statesman who reshaped the Middle East.
Sharon died at the age of 85 on Saturday after eight years in a coma caused by a stroke he suffered at the pinnacle of his political power. He will be buried on Monday in a military funeral on his farm in southern Israel.
“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 on Sunday.
Sharon was one of Israel’s finest military strategists and most powerful political figures, spearheading military invasion, Jewish settlement-building on land the Palestinians want for a state, and making the shock decision to withdraw from one of those territories, the Gaza Strip.
Prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Sharon’s stroke happened 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 as prime minister.
In parliament’s main plaza, Israelis filed past Sharon’s coffin, which was draped in the blue-and-white national flag.
The mood was sombre but not deeply mournful, eight years after Sharon fell from public view. A few in the crowd wept, but many others paused to snap photographs of the coffin with their cellphones.
“Whatever he decided to do, he followed it through to the end - and that was his greatness,” said Shlomo Tal, 74, from Jerusalem, who came to parliament to pay his respects.
LOVED AND HATED
Sharon was widely hated by Arabs over the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camp in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel.
But the United States and other foreign powers mourned him as a peacemaker, noting his pursuit of dialogue with the Palestinians. Those negotiations continue under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though differences remain wide.
“He was bound to the land. He knew that the land must be protected. And he understood above all else that our existence is predicated on our ability to protect ourselves by ourselves,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday after ministers stood for a minute’s silence as a mark of honour.
Many Israelis will remember Sharon as a brilliant but unpredictable military leader who fought in the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and went on to earn a reputation for trigger-happy disobedience.
But he was also hailed in Israel for the crucial counter-attack across the Suez Canal that helped to turn the tide of the 1973 Middle East war with Egypt and Syria.
In 1983 an Israeli state inquiry found Sharon, who as defence minister engineered Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and war against Palestinian guerrillas there, indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila killings, and he was forced to resign his post.
“The Palestinian people remember what Sharon did and tried to do to our people and their dream of forming a state,” Wael Abu Yousef, a senior member of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation, told Reuters.
Palestinians in Gaza handed out sweets to passersby and motorists in celebration of Sharon’s passing.
“We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant (Sharon),” said Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist faction governing Gaza.
A memorial service will be held in parliament on Monday before an afternoon funeral at Sycamore Farm. Israeli generals will serve as pallbearers.
Among foreign dignitaries expected to attend the ceremonies are U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli-Palestinian peace mediator and former British prime minister Tony Blair, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and delegates from Russia, Canada, Spain and the Czech Republic.
“As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honouring his commitment to his country,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.
“We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries,” said Obama, whose relationship with Netanyahu has been strained by issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme and Israeli settlement-building.
Palestinians also accuse Sharon of sparking their “Intifada” with a provocative visit to the al Aqsa mosque plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2000, a year before he took power.
He further angered them with a crushing army sweep of self-rule areas of the West Bank in 2002 after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and with his siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound.
But Sharon surprised many by withdrawing soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 under a policy of “disengagement” from conflict and a pursuit of dialogue with the Palestinians.
The pullout, however, led to Gaza’s takeover by Hamas, which, unlike the West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas, spurns co-existence with Israel and often trades fire with it.
Sharon was resented by many settlers who once saw him as their champion. Israeli media quoted lawmaker Orit Strouk of the Jewish Home, an ultranationalist party in Netanyahu’s coalition, as thanking God that Sharon was removed from power before he could order West Bank withdrawals. The remarks sparked outrage and she later apologised.
As Sharon’s finance minister in 2005, Netanyahu quit in protest at the Gaza plan. Netanyahu points to Hamas’s rise as vindication of his stance.
A lifelong farmer renowned for his big appetite, Sharon was known as “the Bulldozer”, in part for his headlong pursuit of hardline policies that included the settlement expansion in territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.