Ariel Sharon, Israel’s eleventh prime minister, was buried in a military funeral Monday, surrounded by family, friends, foreign dignitaries and the upper echelons of the state and military, who gathered to honor one of Israel’s most storied — and controversial — battlefield commanders and political leaders.
Sharon was buried at his ranch, Sycamore Farm, in the western Negev, alongside the grave of his wife Lily. Earlier, he was memorialized at a Knesset ceremony by President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Vice President Joe Biden and other leaders and friends.
Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85.
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 a highly popular prime minister at the time of his stroke.
“Look at how they thank you for protecting them, how they cherish you for defending them,” Sharon’s son Omri eulogized him at the funeral.
His younger son Gilad captured the emotion of saying goodbye to Sharon, first addressing his father’s daring military achievements.
“They said you can’t overcome the terror of the 1950s. They said tanks can’t do flanking maneuvers in the dunes north of Um Katef in 1967. They said you can’t cross the Suez Canal in the  Yom Kippur War, until you did and ended the war,” he said from a podium set up next to the gravesite in the late afternoon.
Then he highlighted Sharon he politician: “They said there is no alternative to new immigrants living in tents [during the mass immigration wave in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union]. They said terror can’t be defeated in the early 2000s. So they said. But you proved otherwise. Doing the impossible is how legends are born, how a national ethos is created.”
Gilad moved on to sound a defiant note at Sharon’s right-wing critics over the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. “There are more than 100 flourishing towns and villages founded by you, in the Golan, Negev, Sharon region, Judea and Samaria. Those who criticize you for removing the settlements of Gaza must know you founded more than 100 settlements, more than anyone else.”
Gilad then spoke to the crowd of local and foreign notables, and some 600 members of the Israeli public, gathered at the Anemone Hill facing the Sycamore Ranch: “Look around,” he said. “The scenery is painfully beautiful.
“For years we trekked these fields and pastures,” he continued, speaking to his newly buried father. “We walked in these scenes for years, sometimes speaking, sometimes silent and thoughtful. You don’t really live in a place until you bury your dead there,” he added, and paused, choking back tears.
And he spoke about the moment of Sharon’s death on Saturday.
“Saturday afternoon, in the hospital at Tel Hashomer, with [musicians] Arik Einstein and Arik Lavi playing in the background, I sit at your side, holding your hand, caressing your face, my dying father. Then you returned home.”
Listen to TLV1’s audiobroadcast from the Sharon funeral.
Sharon was buried at his iconic 1,000-acre ranch — the second premier to be buried in the Negev, after Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion.
Nearly 10 years on, the withdrawal from Gaza remains hotly debated in Israeli society. Supporters say Israel is better off not being bogged down in the crowded territory, which is now home to 1.7 million Palestinians. Critics say the pullout has only brought more violence. Two years after the withdrawal, Hamas seized control of Gaza and stepped up rocket fire on Israel.
In a reminder of the precarious security situation, Palestinian militants on Monday fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip minutes after the funeral ceremony ended. Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel is within range of such projectiles, and has been hit in the past. In this case, the rockets fell in open ground.
The day began at the Knesset, where Sharon’s casket lay in state. Peres, Netanyahu, Biden, former UK premier Tony Blair and some of Sharon’s old colleagues and friends delivered remarks.
Biden eulogized Sharon as “a complex man who lived in complex times in a complex neighborhood.” Sharon was a part of “one of the most remarkable founding generations” in the world’s history, and had “the land of Israel, the Negev, etched on his soul.”
In a heartfelt address, Biden talked about a decades-long friendship with Sharon, saying the death felt “like a death in the family.”
When the two discussed Israel’s security, Biden said he understood how Sharon earned the nickname “Bulldozer,” explaining how Sharon would pull out maps and repeatedly make the same points to drive them home. “He was indomitable,” Biden said.
In a country as small as Israel, Sharon’s death “doesn’t just feel like the loss of a leader, it feels like a death in the family. Many of my fellow Americans, some of whom are here, feel that same sense of loss,” Biden said.
Though we will “never know what the ultimate arc of Arik Sharon’s life would have been had he been physically able to pursue his goal,” he went on, “as prime minister he surprised many.”
“He left us too soon,” lamented Biden, “but the work of trying to reach peace continues.”
Biden went out of his way to praise “the political courage it took, whether you agreed with him or not, when he told 10,000 Israelis to leave their homes in Gaza in order to, in his perspective, strengthen” Israel. “I can’t think of a more difficult and controversial decision that’s been made.”
Biden also praised Sharon’s commitment to Israel’s security. “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,” he said.
Blair, who is now an international envoy to the Middle East, said Sharon’s “strategic objective” never changed. “The same iron determination he took to the field of war he took to the chamber of diplomacy. Bold. Unorthodox. Unyielding,” he said.
The speakers at Monday’s ceremony outside parliament largely glossed over the controversy surrounding Sharon’s record, and instead focused on his leadership and personality.
“Arik was a man of the land,” Peres, a longtime friend and sometimes rival, said in his eulogy. “He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe. He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land.”
Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon’s Cabinet to protest the Gaza withdrawal, said that he and Sharon didn’t always agree with each other. Nonetheless, he called Sharon “one of the big warriors” for the nation of Israel.
“Arik was a man of actions, pragmatic, and his pragmatism was rooted in deep emotion, deep emotion for the country and deep emotion for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said.
Settler leader and close friend Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever eulogized him as a great builder and fighter — albeit a leader who, in his last years, did things that were “painful and difficult” by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
“You taught the children of Israel how to fight,” Hever said. “Everything you built you built big and deep, a project not for 20 years but for all time…. You believed utterly in the Jewish people and its abilities. You said again and again, ‘This people will overcome every obstacle.’”
In addition to Biden and Blair, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, and foreign ministers of Australia and Germany were among those in attendance at Monday’s Knesset ceremony. Even Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, sent a low-level diplomat, its embassy said.
After the Knesset event, the casket was taken in a long convoy to the Armored Corps Museum and Memorial at Latrun, where Sharon fought and nearly died in the 1948 War of Independence, for a brief ceremony in which the top officers of the IDF saluted him. His casket then continued southward to his Negev ranch for the funeral.
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 security envelope around the event was managed by the Shin Bet security service, which was on “emergency” footing throughout Monday, with its entire manpower deployed to protect the day-long, rolling commemoration event.
“We are preparing for every conceivable scenario,” Israel’s Southern District Police chief Yoram Halevy had said Sunday, “from minor provocations” by Israeli extremists “to gunfire from the Gaza Strip.”
Police on horseback, IDF troops, balloon and other surveillance drones, Iron Dome batteries and air force fighter jets on patrol above were are among the more visible security precautions.
The old general’s military past — he served in the IDF almost uninterrupted from 1948 to 1973 — loomed large in the day of ceremonies, and was central to the Negev funeral, where IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz gave a lengthy address. Gantz recalled Sharon’s profound influence on the IDF. “The army will continue to live in your shadow and in your image for many years,” he said.
Sharon was a study in contrasts, Gantz suggested: “A grizzled warrior with a subscription to the philharmonic, the daring commander, the considered planner. You knew how to choose the best of the warriors, the bravest among those charging ahead, the future generation. There isn’t a battle doctrine in which we can’t see your fingerprints as a commander.”
Sharon’s body was lowered into the grave by eight IDF major generals who served as pallbearers, including Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, Navy chief Ram Rutberg, Air Force commander Amir Eshel, and the heads of the northern and southern commands.
Though the funeral at Sycamore Farm was relatively sparsely attended, the presence of the top echelons of the state, army and diplomatic corps were meaningful for Sharon’s former colleagues, friends and family, his former aide, attorney Dov Weisglass, told Channel 2.
“We’re overwhelmed by the great honor, interest, admiration, from Israel and around the world, for a man who was not only an Israeli figure, but a global one. There’s nothing more cruel, or shorter, than the public’s memory,” Weisglass said with uncharacteristic bluntness. “Things change daily, and the man left public life eight years ago.”
For those who were close to Sharon, Weisglass said, “it touches our hearts to see how much his legacy and story are still so powerful.”