Israelis bid farewell to former PM Sharon

Hundreds of Israelis lined up outside Israel’s parliament building yesterday to pay their last respects to Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister and general who died over the weekend.

Israelis bid farewell to former PM Sharon

Sharon’s coffin was displayed in a plaza in front of the Knesset, where a stream of visitors passed by to take pictures and say farewell.

A funeral service at the parliament building, due to be attended by dignitaries from around the world including US vice president Joe Biden and former British prime minister Tony Blair, is scheduled for today.

The 85-year-old Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after suffering a stroke that left him in a coma.

A farmer-turned-soldier, a soldier-turned-politician, and a politician-turned- statesman, Sharon was a leader known for his exploits on the battlefield, masterminding Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, building Jewish settlements on war- won land and then, late in life, destroying some that he deemed no longer useful.

To his supporters, he was a war hero. To his critics, he was a war criminal.

Yesterday, Israeli officials closed off streets around the parliament in anticipation of huge crowds.

President Shimon Peres and former prime minister Ehud Olmert — who succeeded Sharon after the 2006 stroke — were among the visitors.

After tomorrow’s funeral service, Sharon’s body will be taken by military convey for burial at his ranch in southern Israel.

Sharon’s career stretched across much of Israel’s 65-year existence, and his life was closely intertwined with the country’s history.

Throughout his life, he was at the centre of the most contentious episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting as a soldier fighting in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. Historians credit him with helping turn the tide of the 1973 Middle East war when Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on the fasting day of Yom Kippur, causing heavy Israeli casualties.

Sharon became a minister in the late 1970s, and voted against the1979 peace treaty with Egypt. But when it fell to him to remove Jewish settlements from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, he ordered protesting settlers to be dragged away and their homes bulldozed to rubble.

As defence minister in 1982, Sharon launched the invasion of Lebanon.

As opposition leader in Sept 2000, Sharon visited a contested Jewish-Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian protests that quickly lurched into an armed uprising.

Several months later, he was elected prime minister.

Maverick figure marched to his own drum

By Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller, Jerusulam

A maverick in war and politics, Israel’s Ariel Sharon reshaped the Middle East in a career marked by adventurism and disgrace, dramatic reversals and stunning rebounds.

Loathed by many Arabs and a divisive figure within Israel, Sharon left his mark on the region as perhaps no other through military invasion, Jewish settlement building on captured land and a shock decision to pull out of Gaza.

A commander in the army from the birth of Israel in 1948, he went on to hold many of the top offices of state, surviving fierce debate over his role in refugee camp massacres in the 1982 Lebanon war to be elected prime minister in 2001.

Famously overweight, he suffered a stroke that put him into a coma in 2006, when he was at the height of his power, and died on Saturday without ever regaining consciousness.

Some diplomats believed that, had he remained in good health, he would have secured peace with the Palestinians after overcoming domestic critics to force through the withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

“As one who fought in all of Israel’s wars, and learned from personal experience that without proper force, we do not have a chance of surviving in this region . . . I have also learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land,” Sharon said in 2004, explaining his move.

As prime minister, Sharon presided over some of the most turbulent times in Israeli-Palestinian history, a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 and an Israeli military crackdown after peace talks collapsed. As Israel’s leader, he besieged his arch-nemesis, Yasser Arafat, with tanks after suicide bombers flooded Israel from the West Bank.

In 1998 he urged West Bank settlers to “run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge settlements, because everything we take will stay ours”.

He said the contested decision to quit the Gaza Strip, which pulled apart his Likud party and persuaded him to form a new political force, would enable Israel to strengthen its hold over “territory which is essential to our existence”.

It was a reference to the West Bank, where his government began the construction of a massive barrier during the Palestinian uprising. Israel called it a security measure — Palestinians condemned the project as a land grab.

Reuters

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