Former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s body lay in state yesterday outside parliament in Jerusalem, where thousands of Israelis waited to bid farewell to the maverick warrior-statesman who reshaped the Middle East.
Mr 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 today 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.
Mr Sharon, pictured right, 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, his stroke happened shortly after he quit the right-wing Likud party and founded a centrist faction to advance peace with the Palestinians, whose 2000-05 “Intifada” uprising he had battled as prime minister.
In parliament’s main plaza, Israelis filed past Mr Sharon’s coffin, which was draped in the blue-and-white national flag.
The mood was sombre but not deeply mournful. A few in the crowd wept, but many others paused to snap photographs of the coffin with their mobile phones.
“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.
Mr 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.
“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,” Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet yesterday after ministers stood for a minute’s silence. Many Israelis will remember Mr 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 Mr 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, said in a statement.
Palestinians in Gaza handed out sweets to passers-by and motorists in celebration of Mr 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 today before an afternoon funeral at Sycamore Farm. Israeli generals will serve as pallbearers.
Among foreign dignitaries expected to attend the ceremonies are US vice-president Joe Biden and former prime minister Tony Blair.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and delegates from Russia, Canada, Spain and the Czech Republic are also expected to attend.