SYCAMORE FARM, Western Negev — Forty six years after losing his first son and nearly 14 years after losing his second wife, Ariel Sharon was brought home on Monday, returned to the earth that he loved.

Close to the grave site on Anemone Hill, dignitaries and relatives delivered heartfelt and at times surprising speeches. Farther away, watching on screens and seated on lawn chairs, a relatively small but diverse and devoted crowd of supporters mingled, prayed and exchanged reminisces of Israel’s 11th prime minister.

Salah Dabah, in a gold trimmed black cloak and a kaffiyeh, stood at the bottom of the hill alongside his son, Mahmoud. The Dabah family, from the Arab village of Dir el-Assad in the Galilee, sells sheep for meat. Since 1979, Salah Dabah said, they have been buying their sheep from Arik and Gilad Sharon. “There was no one like him in the world,” said Dabah, an elderly man. “His word was his honor.”

Salah Dabah, a longtime friend and work colleague of Ariel Sharon's (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Salah Dabah, a longtime friend and work colleague of Ariel Sharon’s (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

His son, more fluent in Hebrew, said he had not thought twice about making the long drive because Sharon, even as a minister in government, had come to his house to visit after both of his sons were born. “What he said is what he did,” said the younger Dabah, who was wearing a long wool coat and brown Armani sunglasses.

Farther up the hill, Shoshana Springer and Rivka Weissbrot, both of Rishon Letzion, were catching their breath and arguing, in what seemed a familiar way, about the man and his significance.

Springer said she had never met Sharon but had come to pay her final respects because, in October 1973, just 10 days after her wedding, her new husband was called to war. He fought on the southern front, alongside Sharon. “Arik brought him back to me,” she said. “Just talking about it makes the hair on my head stand up.”

“It’s because of him that this country exists,” she said, recounting Sharon’s daring crossing of the Suez canal that decided the Yom Kippur War.

Weissbrot felt her friend had gone overboard. She, too, had a husband who fought in that war, on the northern front, far from Sharon’s division, and said that, “I once, how should I say it, didn’t love him.”

After the massacre in Sabra and Shatila in 1982, under Sharon’s watch as defense minister, she said, she was firmly in the camp that demonized him. “Only as prime minister, when I saw the way he handles affairs, how he does and doesn’t talk, did I fall in love with him,” she said.

Up on the hill, beneath the massive TV screens, a group of men from Netivot and the environs sat comfortably in the shade, listening to one man, Avraham Cohen, cigarette in hand and satin yarmulke on his head, discuss his feelings for, and acquaintance with, Sharon. “Listen carefully,” he told me, “I was in charge of fixing the tanks on the side of the road during the [1973] war. I went anywhere for him. Into the fire.”

Avraham Cohen, who served under Sharon in the Yom Kippur War and defended his honor in prison (Photo credit: MItch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Avraham Cohen, who served under Sharon in the Yom Kippur War and defended his honor in prison (Photo credit: MItch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

One of the other men jokingly said, “but you were a cook in the army, what are you talking about?”

Cohen waved him away. “Arik Sharon was a king. The greatest fighter since Samson. And anyone who doubts that can come talk to me.”

Originally from Nir Moshe, a moshav adjacent to the Sharon family ranch and today living in the development town of Netivot, Cohen said he had done time in prison and that all of the “pumped up” convicts always folded in the face of Arab opposition when behind bars, “but everyone knew with me that if you said a bad word about Arik Sharon, you were going to end up [beaten like] a dog.”

Others were more silent and contemplative. One man from Rehovot said that he had served alongside Sharon but, when asked to share some of the experiences, only murmured “I was happy to be an anonymous Jewish soldier. We did what was necessary.” After a moment of silence, I noticed he was sobbing behind his sunglasses. I squeezed his shoulder as he turned away.

Another couple, the man in an army hat and work clothes, said they came simply because they thought it was the right thing to do. After several terse answers, I saw the woman’s lip was quivering. I said, “you seem, nonetheless, to be tied to him,” and she said, after some hesitation, “we were linked in bereavement.” She had lost her son in the military; Sharon’s son had died in his arms, in October 1967, as had many fellow soldiers. They had never met Sharon or spoken to him about their loss, they said, but the bond was strong, nonetheless.

Zvi Aviram, in a leather rancher’s hat and a pinstriped shirt, described Sharon, whom he met in 1965, as a man “whom you feared, who demanded excellence, but to whom you could say anything,” and added that, as a young officer, “it was easy to succeed under Arik.”

Zvi Aviram, left, said it was easy to be a good officer when serving under Sharon (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Zvi Aviram, left, said it was easy to be a good officer when serving under Sharon (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

During the Yom Kippur War, he said, Sharon’s even-keeled voice over the radio, his calm and his ability to immediately understand your location and predicament, were crucial. “He was the greatest of military leaders we ever had,” said Aviram, whose two commanding officers were killed in that war.

People in attendance also found time, while waiting for the official ceremony to begin, to talk about two more traits for which Sharon was famous – his legendary appetite and his charm and charisma.

Aviram and the men near him, Ze’ev Duchovni and Yisrael Peleg, two of the founders of Sharon’s failed Shlomtzion Party, were brimming with stories about his love of food – the two loaves of bread he ate with sardines with Aviram after a morning patrol, and the steak, after an enormous dinner, that came out of the kitchen and which, to everyone’s surprise, he insisted on eating.

More surprising, perhaps, was the praise from the lips of Gideon Levy, Haaretz’s far-left writer. Standing alongside a barricade, waiting for the casket to arrive, he said he first personally met Sharon in the 80s and that Sharon had taken him on a tour of Gaza to show him, ironically, how crucial that strip of land was to Israel’s security. Levy was not “as radical” as he is today, he said, but still he was positioned almost as far as possible from Sharon on the political spectrum.

And yet, “the charm worked. There’s no doubt about it. The man was a charm machine,” Levy said.

For a year or two, Levy said, the two were personally, if not politically, close, and added that, today, “it pinches my heart to see the farm [in mourning] like this.” He extended his hand to the grassy fields and the faraway house.

The wreaths alongside Sharon's fresh grave (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ Flash 90)

The wreaths alongside Sharon’s fresh grave (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ Flash 90)

Later, once the dignitaries had arrived, the chief of the IDF’s General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, declared in remarks directed to Sharon that, in the army he today commands, “there is no battlefield theory or strategy that does not carry your fingerprint.”

The eleventh prime minister’s oldest son, Omri, a powerful but shy man, read from “The Education of the Chieftain,” a poem by the Communist Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, whose chief “habituated his feet in cascades… scratched the secrets from crags… was a hunter among cruel birds,” and whose “mantle was stained with victories.” The chief, Naruda wrote, “ate from the fire of his people” and “learned the alphabet of lightning.”

Finally, Gilad Sharon, speaking of the death of his older brother, Gur, and of his father, who, after eight years of hospital care was finally being laid to rest beside his second wife, Lily, said that a place is not truly your home until you bury your dead there. “Beloved father,” he said, “you’ve come home.”

Read Mitch Ginsburg’s obituary of Ariel Sharon here.