Israel honours Ariel Sharon at state funeral

Monday, 13 January 2014 - 2:25pm IST | Place: JERUSALEM | Agency: Reuters

Israel paid homage to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the first of two funeral services to be held on Monday for a man hailed as a war hero at home but seen by many in the Arab world as a war criminal.

US Vice President Joe Biden joined the sombre ceremony in front of the Israeli parliament, Sharon's coffin draped in the Israel's blue and white flag, bathed in winter sunshine.

"We are accompanying to his final resting place today, a soldier, an exceptional soldier, a commander who knew how to win," said Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Sharon died at the age of 85 on Saturday after spending the last eight years in a coma caused by a massive stroke. 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.

"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.

After the memorial service at parliament, Sharon's body will be driven from Jerusalem to his family farm some 10 km (6 miles) from Gaza, where he will be buried later in the day.

Security concerns

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting he had not always seen eye-to-eye with Sharon on policy matters - particularly the Gaza withdrawl - hailed the former leader's commitment to Israel's security. "Arik understood that in matters of our existence and security, we must stand firm. We are sticking to these principles," Netanyahu said. "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."

Sharon and Peres are the last of the so-called 1948-generation of leaders who played a part in Israeli public life from the very foundation of the nation. Sharon spearheaded military campaigns in several wars with the Arab world, expanded Jewish settlement-building on land the Palestinians want for a state, and then, as prime minister, made the shock decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005.

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. He was forced to stand down as defence minister in 1983 after an Israeli probe said he bore "personal responsibility" for not preventing the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Israeli-allied Christian militiamen. Written off at the time, he soon bounced back and served as prime minister from 2001 until his stroke.




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