Israel buries controversial leader Sharon

Ahead of the military funeral, Sharon’s flag-draped coffin was placed on a black marble plinth in the plaza outside the Knesset

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The Israeli army has changed the deployment of the Iron Dome aerial defense system batteries in the area to defend against possible rocket attacks from Gaza during the funeral of former premier Ariel Sharon on Monday.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported that the funeral of controversial leader, who died in hospital near Tel Aviv Saturday after eight years in a coma, would be heavily guarded with bolstered security.

Sharon is celebrated as a war hero at home but loathed by Arabs as a criminal. Known as “Arik” among his loyalists, he will be buried next to his second wife, Lily, and thousands are expected to attend the ceremony.

At a memorial service outside the parliament in Jerusalem which was packed with Israeli leaders and a handful of foreign diplomats, Sharon was remembered for his lifelong commitment to the security of Israel but also for his stubborn ruthlessness which earned him the nickname "The Bulldozer".

"You never rested in service of your people, when defending your land and making it flourish," said Israeli President Shimon Peres standing in the Knesset plaza, where Sharon's flag-draped coffin stood on a black marble plinth.

"The land from which you came will embrace you in the warm arms of the history of our nation to which you added an unforgettable chapter," he said under bright blue skies as a row of Israeli flags flapped in the background.

In an address to the mourners, among them around 20 foreign diplomats, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden remembered Sharon as "a powerful man" whose presence "filled the room."

"He was indomitable," said Biden, hailing him for his political courage in pushing through Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

"Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man.. (who) lived in a complex time in a complex neighborhood," he said.

Former British premier Tony Blair remembered him as "passionate" about his country but a man who "could leave considerable debris in his wake."

"Tough but shy, indomitable but a servant to his people," Blair said. "He was a giant in this land."

A procession from the Knesset to the ranch paused for a ceremony at a military memorial site in Latrun, west of Jerusalem, where Sharon was wounded in the 1948 war of independence.

Sharon 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 Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

His early career as a warrior earned him the moniker “The Bulldozer” but most world leaders chose to remember the politician who surprised many by masterminding Israel’s withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005.

Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to immigrants from Belarus, Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

(With AFP)

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