Israelis pay respects to controversial 'warrior' Sharon

Israelis pay respects to controversial 'warrior' Sharon

Jerusalem (AFP) - Thousands of Israelis on Sunday filed past the coffin of Ariel Sharon, paying respect to a former prime minister whose controversial life inspired admiration and provoked revulsion in equal measure.

Celebrated as a military hero at home, recognised as a pragmatic politician abroad and despised as a bloodthirsty criminal by the Palestinians and the Arab world, Sharon was nothing if not a polarising figure.

But Israelis of all stripes acknowledged the burly 85-year-old as a key figure in their nation's history, his death on Saturday leaving President Shimon Peres as the Jewish state's last surviving founding father.

The white-haired former general had been in coma since January 4, 2006, following a massive stroke which felled him at the height of his political career.

Ahead of his funeral on Monday, Sharon's flag-draped coffin was placed on a black marble plinth in the plaza outside the Knesset, or parliament, for the public to pay their last respects.

A spokesman for the assembly told AFP up to 20,000 people had filed past the coffin, which was flanked by an honour guard, by 1700 GMT when the plaza was closed to the public after seven hours.

Among the visitors were people of all ages, soldiers and black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews rubbing shoulders with families.

Earlier, ministers held a minute's silence in memory of Israel's 11th prime minister as they met for their weekly cabinet meeting.

"He will be remembered in the heart of the Jewish people forever as one of our most outstanding leaders and most daring commanders," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told them.

Funeral at ranch near Gaza

Sharon will be buried on Monday afternoon at Sycamore Ranch, his home in the southern Negev desert, after a military funeral at 1200 GMT.

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

With thousands of people expected to attend the funeral, police were preparing to deploy extra units to secure the area, which lies just a few kilometres (miles) from the northern border with Gaza.

Channel 2 television said the army had changed the deployment of the Iron Dome aerial defence system batteries in the area to defend against possible rocket attacks from Gaza. A military spokeswoman refused to comment.

World leaders sent condolences over Sharon's death, remembering the divisive figure in cautious diplomatic language. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to represent Washington at a special memorial at the Knesset on Monday morning.

Others expected to attend are German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, outgoing Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair as well as diplomats from Canada, Spain and Russia.

Sharon's dramatic story was the subject of blanket media coverage on Sunday, with Israeli newspapers 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 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 pullout from Gaza in 2005.

Settler leaders, who saw him as a powerful fatherly figure prior to the pullout, were reserved in their eulogies.

"Sharon was the greatest of Israel's military leaders," settler spokesman Dani Dayan said. "He defeated Palestinian terror, against all odds. Today, I prefer to stop the memories there, and not deal with the terrible mistake known as the Gaza disengagement."

The Palestinians were quick to welcome news of his death, which prompted an outburst of celebration in the Gaza Strip, where the ruling Islamist Hamas movement said it was a "historic moment" marking the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood".

One of the last members of the generation that founded the Jewish state in 1948, Sharon leaves a complex legacy which also includes the sprawling barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.

His policy of separation from the Palestinians culminated in the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza, a bold move that earned him the hatred of his former nationalist and settler allies.

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.