JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon was laid to rest Monday at his ranch in southern Israel as the nation bid a final farewell to one of its most colorful and influential leaders — a man venerated by supporters as a warrior and statesman but reviled in the Arab world as a war criminal.
After Israeli politicians and international dignitaries honoured Sharon, the military funeral carried a more personal tone, with Sharon’s two sons eulogizing their father as an inspiration for the nation. On a day full of warm eulogies, speakers made only passing references to the exploits that made him such a divisive figure.
Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke removed the prime minister from office and left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85.
His younger son, Gilad, re-enacted his final moments: in a hospital room, with music playing, family members chatting and his grandchildren running about.
“And only the hero of the play is lying motionless,” he said, pausing. “I hold your hand and stroke your face, the face of my dying father. Beloved father, you have come home.”
With hundreds of officials and everyday Israelis on hand, Sharon’s other son, Omri, addressed his father a final time.
“Look around, and see the nation gathering around this hilltop. Look and see how they thank you for guarding them. How they appreciate you protecting them and leading them. How they love you and miss you and bow a head. You were worthy of such praise,” he said.
One of Israel’s greatest and most divisive figures, Sharon rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister.
He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. But in a surprising about-face, he led a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after a 38-year presence in a move he said was necessary to ensure Israel’s security.
His backers called him a hero, remembering his daring exploits that helped turn the tide of the 1973 Mideast war in Israel’s favour and, after becoming prime minister, his harsh crackdown that helped end a violent Palestinian uprising.
His detractors held him responsible for years of bloodshed. They remember his role in a 1953 commando raid that killed 69 Arabs in the West Bank, and as the mastermind of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon — where he became complicit in a massacre in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps by an Israeli-allied militia that killed hundreds of Palestinians. Even Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is scorned as a unilateral act that left the beleaguered area doomed for failure.
“He has prepared the foundation for further conflict and undermined the chances of peace by adopting the policy and strategy of militarism, unilateralism and violence, by acting in a way that the end justifies the means and by having total disregard for Palestinian lives and rights,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian official.
In Gaza, the territory’s Islamic Hamas rulers held a victory parade marking the five-year anniversary of a fierce battle against Israel. In speeches, they mentioned the funeral “of our enemy leader Sharon” and vowed to continue to battle Israel.
In a reminder of the ever-present conflict, Palestinian militants fired four rockets at Israel, including two that landed several miles from Sharon’s ranch shortly after his funeral.
Earlier Monday in the state ceremony, VIPs eulogized Sharon as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting Israel’s security.
“He was indomitable,” U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden said. “But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a north star that guided him. A north star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated. His north star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they resided.”
The speakers largely glossed over the controversies that accompanied Sharon’s life, and instead focused on the leadership and personality of the man affectionately known as “Arik.”
“Positions, parties, policies, he could leave considerable debris in his wake,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “But he had the imagination to know that genuine peace, if attainable with honour and dignity both for Arabs and Israelis, is the anchor ultimately for Israel’s security.”
After the ceremony ended, the closed coffin, draped in a blue and white Israeli flag, was placed in a military vehicle and driven in a police-escorted convoy toward Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel.
Crowds stood along the roadside and on bridges, snapping pictures and getting a final glimpse of the coffin as the procession of vehicles left Jerusalem and snaked down the highway outside the city’s picturesque hills.
The convoy made a brief stop at Latrun, the site of a bloody battle where Sharon was nearly killed during Israel’s war of independence in 1948, for a brief military ceremony before continuing south. His coffin was lowered into the ground in a military funeral at the family farm in southern Israel.
At Sharon’s graveside, his son Gilad remembered his father for overcoming the odds, whether it was battling a Palestinian uprising after becoming prime minister in 2001 or clinging to life in his final days even after his kidneys had stopped functioning.
“Again and again you turned the impossible to reality. That’s how legends are made. That’s how an ethos of a nation is created,” he said.