Israel’s Ariel Sharon laid to rest

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SYCAMORE RANCH (AFP) – Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s most skilled but controversial leaders was laid to rest at his ranch on Monday, ending a major chapter in the history of the Jewish state.

The farmer-turned-fighter who fought in all of Israel’s major wars before turning to politics, lived a ruthlessly uncompromising life which saw him both hailed as a hero and cursed as a war criminal.

After eight years in a coma brought on by a massive stroke, the burly 85-year-old was laid to rest in the soil he loved so much just a few kilometres (miles) from the Gaza Strip, the scene of one of his last and most daring political acts.

It was Sharon’s evacuation of all troops and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 that rewrote much of the former general’s history, turning former rightwing allies into enemies and forcing world leaders to recast him as a peacemaker.

But for the Palestinians and the Arab world, Sharon remained a warmonger with blood on his hands.

“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,” Israeli President Shimon Peres told mourners at an open-air memorial service in Jerusalem hours before the funeral.

Under cloudless blue skies, a string of Israeli leaders and foreign dignitaries eulogised Sharon for his military prowess, his lifelong defence of Israel’s security, and his political courage.

Wearing a black Jewish skullcap as he addressed a sombrely-dressed crowd of Israeli officials and ministers and diplomats from 20 countries, US Vice President Joe Biden remembered Sharon as a “historic leader” whose guiding star was “the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people”.

“Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man… (who) lived in a complex time in a complex neighbourhood,” said Biden, hailing him for both his military courage and his political courage in pushing through Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like many who bitterly opposed the Gaza withdrawal, focused instead on Sharon’s “unique contribution” to Israel’s security, describing him as “one of (Israel’s) greatest military leaders” who had “reintroduced the legacy of Jewish bravery into the Land of Israel”.

After the service, the coffin was taken briefly to a military memorial site in Latrun on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, where Sharon was wounded in the 1948 war of independence, before ending its journey in Sycamore Ranch in the Negev desert.

‘Father of settlement movement’

There, eight generals carried Sharon’s casket to a hillside and lowered it into a plot next to the grave of his second wife Lily, removing the blue and white Israeli flag before covering it with dirt.

A rabbi then went up to Sharon’s two sons and made a symbolic cut in their shirts as a sign of mourning.

“Arik, the commander. You had many titles over the years, but I think this is the one that suited you most,” Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said at the graveside.

“Generations of soldiers came to salute you for the last time today… I came to salute you too.”

Just an hour after the end of the funeral, two rockets from Gaza struck an area only a few kilometres away, causing no injury or damage, the army said.

“Two projectiles landed in an open area in the Shaar HaNegev region,” a military spokeswoman told AFP, with media reports saying they landed near Sderot.

Given the ranch’s proximity to Gaza, Israel police and the army had beefed up security in the area and around the Hamas-run enclave.

Unconfirmed media reports said the army had deployed a battery of the Iron Dome missile defence system in the area to counter possible rocket attacks.

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 Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Later in life, Sharon surprised both friends and foes alike by masterminding the evacuation of all troops and 8,000 settlers from Gaza.

Although many of his former rightwing allies have never forgiven him, Zeev Hever, a veteran settler leader who spoke at the memorial, hailed the many years Sharon had fought to build up the settlements.

“You taught the Jewish people how to fight and then how to settle,” he said, describing him as “the father of the settlement movement”.

“Your disengagement from our shared path… was difficult and painful. The questions remain unanswered, the pain is great, but a deep love covers everything,” he said.

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