Israelis yesterday paid their last respects to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, whose controversial life inspired admiration and provoked revulsion, and whose death drew emotional reactions even after eight years in a coma.
Celebrated as a military hero at home, recognized as a pragmatic politician abroad and despised as a bloodthirsty criminal by many Palestinians and the Arab world, the former prime minister was nothing if not a polarizing figure.
However, Israelis of all stripes acknowledged the burly 85-year-old as a key figure in their nation’s history, his death on Saturday leaving Israeli President Shimon Peres as the Jewish state’s last surviving founding father.
The white-haired former general had been in coma since Jan. 4, 2006, following a massive stroke that felled him at the height of his political career.
Ahead of his funeral this afternoon, Sharon’s coffin was laid in the plaza outside the Knesset for the public to pay their last respects. Flanked by a parliamentary honor guard, the flag-draped coffin was placed on a black marble plinth with half-a-dozen wreaths laid at the base.
In the first half-hour, a steady trickle of people filed past the coffin in respectful silence, most of them middle-aged or elderly. There were no open displays of grief.
Earlier yesterday, ministers held a minute’s silence in memory of Israel’s 11th prime minister as they met for the weekly Cabinet meeting, an official statement said.
“He will be remembered in the heart of the Jewish people forever as one of our most outstanding leaders and most daring commanders,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a tribute, according to the statement.
Sharon will be buried this afternoon at Sycamore Ranch, his home in the southern Negev Desert after a military funeral.
World leaders sent condolences over his death, remembering the controversial figure in cautious diplomatic language. US Vice President Joe Biden is expected to represent Washington at a special memorial at the Knesset in Jerusalem this morning. Others expected to attend are German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, outgoing Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, as well as diplomats from Spain, Russia and Canada.
Sharon’s dramatic story was the subject of blanket coverage in the Israeli press yesterday, with the papers dedicating multiple pages to pictures and commentary on his life and legacy.
Once known chiefly as a ruthless military leader who fought in all of Israel’s major wars, Sharon switched to politics in 1973, championing the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
He was long considered a pariah for his personal, but “indirect” responsibility in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut’s refugee camps.
His early career as a warrior earned him the moniker “The Bulldozer,” but most world leaders chose to remember him as the politician who surprised many by masterminding Israel’s pullout from Gaza in 2005.