The body of former prime minister Ariel Sharon was laid out in state in the courtyard of the Knesset on Sunday.
A small but steady stream of people filed by his casket, draped in an Israeli flag, to pay their last respects to the war hero and politician ahead of his funeral Monday.
Sharon died Saturday after eight years in a vegetative state. He was 85.
“Words escape me. He was just a man who was larger than life,” said a choked-up Shlomo Mann, 68, who served under Sharon’s command in the 1973 Mideast war. “Those who didn’t know him from up close can’t truly understand what a legend he was. There will never be anyone else like him.”
President Shimon Peres and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein laid wreaths in front of the casket. Police anticipated that large numbers of people would travel to Jerusalem in the course of Sunday to pay respects to the former prime minister, and extra bus services were added.
But the crowds proved fairly thin — a trickle rather than a river of mourners. Officials estimated some 10,000 people came to the Knesset over the course of the day to bid farewell.
Inside the plaza, a trickle of quiet people, with fewer than 100 standing in the Knesset plaza at once, were surrounded by large television cameras and a handful of notepad-carrying reporters. Tourists moved through the line in clumps. Black sedans brought cabinet ministers for brief visits throughout the afternoon.
With tears streaking behind dark sunglasses, 44-year-old Anat Amir said she felt compelled to bid farewell.
“These are tears of pain and parting but also joy in a way for him since now he can finally rest,” she said. “He was a leader you could count on, someone you could trust. He looked into the future, relied on the experience of the past and had the courage to make tough decisions and carry them out.”
Norman Zysblat, 64, called Sharon a “hero of Israel,” whose death left the 90-year-old Peres as perhaps the last remnant of Israel’s greatest generation. He recalled crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 under Sharon’s command, a move widely seen as turning a war against Egypt and Syria in Israel’s favor.
“I saw and felt firsthand the strength he gave the soldiers. He was the one who pushed ahead and provided the spirit,” Zysblat said. “He was one of the greats. When the history of Israel is written, he will be in the first row.”
Not everyone was there to speak highly of Sharon, though.
“He took people out of their homes for no reason at all,” said an elderly man in ultra-Orthodox garb in a reference to Sharon’s 2005 Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
“This is not a historic moment,” explained a young woman to a Korean tourist standing next to her, saying that Sharon’s military record was too brutal to be deserving of state honors.
The weekly cabinet meeting opened with a minute of standing in silence in memory of Sharon, after which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized his predecessor and longtime colleague — and sometimes rival — in the Likud party.
Sharon, he said, “was first and foremost a warrior and a commander, among the greatest military commanders produced by the Jewish people in recent times and throughout its history.” Netanyahu then listed the military campaigns in which Sharon had participated and praised him for his contributions to Israel’s security.
“In all his roles — as defense minister, housing minister, infrastructures minster, and foreign minister — Arik contributed to the State of Israel, as he did also as prime minister of Israel. I think that he represents the generation of Jewish fighters that our people established with the renewal of our independence.”
On Monday morning, the Knesset will hold a formal mourning ceremony, attended by the nation’s leaders and notable dignitaries, before his body is taken to the family’s Sycamore Farm for burial.
Sharon’s death was announced just after 2 p.m. on Saturday, after his condition deteriorated for several weeks. The former prime minister had been fighting kidney failure and blood infection. He had been in a coma since suffering a debilitating stroke in 2006.
Among foreign dignitaries expected to visit Israel to bid farewell to Sharon are US Vice President Joe Biden, Quartet representative and former UK prime minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, Russian parliamentary head Sergey Naryshkin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Spanish Home Affairs Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz and Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, according to a government statement.
Peres, Netanyahu, Edelstein, Biden and Blair will speak at the Monday Knesset ceremony, along with Marit Danon, Sharon’s secretary in the prime minister’s office and Shimon Cahaner, who fought alongside Sharon in 1967. Pop star Sarit Hadad will sing, and Sharon’s sons Omri Sharon and Gilad Sharon will recite kaddish. The event will be closed to the public, but broadcast live on TV.
Before being driven to its final resting place, Sharon’s coffin will be transported to Latrun, in the hills west of the city, where his body will be saluted by the Israel Defense Forces General Command in a brief ceremony.
The site, which Sharon tried several times to capture in 1948 and where he was badly wounded, is today home to Israel’s Armored Corps museum and memorial.
At 2 p.m. Monday, Sharon will be laid to rest at Sycamore Farm (Havat Hashikmim) in the Negev in a military ceremony.
IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz and Omri and Gilad Sharon will speak at the burial. A song by another Arik who died recently, Einstein, will be played.
Though open to the public, room at the Negev funeral will be limited, and seats will only be allocated to those with invitations. His casket will be carried by six major generals and he will be laid to rest alongside his second wife, Lily, who died in 2000.
Security at the event is expected to be heavy and drivers planning to attend should park at Sapir College or Kibbutz Dorot and take shuttle buses from there, an official announcement said.
Sharon, whose nickname was “The Bulldozer,” cut a powerful yet divisive figure in Israeli politics for six decades. Fighting in Israel’s early wars, he earned a reputation as a maverick equally unafraid of enemies or superiors. As a security hawk and champion of the settler movement, he rose to become prime minister on a hard-line platform during the Second Intifada in 2000, yet the most lasting impression of him was seemingly left by his decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
After his death tributes poured in from Israeli and world leaders.
Peres issued a statement calling the 85-year-old leader a “dear friend” who had “lost his final battle.”
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who followed Sharon into Kadima in 2005 and replaced Sharon as prime minister and Kadima party head after the latter fell into a coma in January 2006, said his predecessor was “one of the State of Israel’s greatest soldiers and warriors before and since it was founded.”
Settler leaders and supporters were less effusive. MK Orit Strock of the nationalist-Orthodox Jewish Home party took to Facebook to say God deserved praise for removing Sharon from public life before he could uproot West Bank settlements as he had uprooted Gaza settlements.
US President Barack Obama praised “a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel.” In a White House statement, Obama said: “On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel.” The statement reaffirmed “our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”
Former US president George W. Bush, who worked closely with Sharon when their terms overlapped, called Sharon a “partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”
“I was honored to know this man of courage and call him friend,” he said.
In the Arab world and elsewhere, though, some focused on Sharon’s hawkish past, celebrating his passing.
In the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, where Sharon was blamed for allowing a massacre in 1982, his death was met with joy.
“My heart beats with happiness because he is dead,” a Palestinian man in Shatila was quoted saying by the Lebanese Daily Star.
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub said it was a shame Sharon would never stand trial before an international tribune for his actions.
“Sharon was a criminal, responsible for the assassination of [Palestinian president Yasser] Arafat, and we would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal,” AFP quoted Rajoub saying.
PLO official Dr. Mustafa Barghouti told the BBC that the Palestinians had no positive memories of Sharon.
“Nobody should celebrate any death. But unfortunately I have to say that Mr. Sharon left no good memories with Palestinians. Unfortunately he had a path of war and aggression and a great failure in making peace with the Palestinian people,” he said.
Some Palestinians in the Gaza Strip celebrated Sharon’s death. Residents of Khan Younis took to the streets, burning photos of Sharon and handing out candies to passersby.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement lamenting the fact that Sharon would never stand trial. “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at the NGO, said.
Sharon led the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as defense minister, but was forced to resign the post after a commission of inquiry found him responsible for failing to prevent the massacre by Christian Phalangists of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps.
Born in 1928, Sharon fought in Israel’s War of Independence, where he commanded five ill-fated attempts to take the strategic post of Latrun.
In the 1950s he led a number of raids into Jordanian territory as reprisals for attacks on the young state.
In 1967, he planned the IDF’s first divisional battle, against the Abu Agheila stronghold in the Sinai, completely on his own.
During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal, breaking the back of the Egyptian offensive. As his troops encircled Egypt’s Third Army, Sharon, a reserves officer at the time, instructed them to plant Israeli flags on the high ground, so that the Egyptians would look back across the water and see that they were trapped.
After being pushed out of the military, Sharon founded the hard-line Likud party, advocating for strong security and settlement expansion.
His visit to the Temple Mount as Likud party head in 2000 was seen by some as the spark for the Second Intifada, and several months later he was elected prime minister by a public hungry for security, amid suicide bombings and other attacks.
In mid-2005, he directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending a 38-year military control of the territory. It was a shocking turnaround for a man who had been a leading player in building Jewish settlements in captured territories.
He bolted the Likud party soon after and established the centrist Kadima party, where he was joined by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. He appeared on his way to an easy reelection when he suffered a severe stroke in January 2006. His deputy, Olmert, took over and was elected prime minister a few months later.
Sharon had a first, small stroke in December 2005 and was put on blood thinners before experiencing a severe brain hemorrhage on January 4, 2006. After spending months in the Jerusalem hospital where he was initially treated, Sharon was transferred to the long-term care facility at Tel Hashomer Hospital. He was taken home briefly at one point, but was returned to the hospital, where he had been since.
He is survived by his older sister Dita, his two living sons, Omri and Gilad, his daughter-in-law Inbal, and his six grandchildren.