Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was buried today, hailed by local and foreign dignitaries for his courage on and off the battlefield, and remembered even in death for the divisions he sowed.
Sharon’s coffin, draped with the blue-and-white Israeli flag, was brought in a military truck to his beloved Sycamore Ranch in Israel’s southern Negev desert, where he had raised sheep and cows. Earlier, at a state ceremony at Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Israeli leaders and military comrades in paying tribute. Sharon died Jan. 11 at 85, eight years after a stroke left him in a coma and abruptly took him off Israel’s political stage.
Sharon left a mixed legacy. An audacious and ferocious military leader, he was later forced to resign as defense minister following the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by an allied Christian militia. The politician who championed settlement construction on captured land was later lauded internationally as a peacemaker for withdrawing Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who quit Sharon’s government over the Gaza withdrawal, acknowledged their differences. “I didn’t always agree with Arik and he didn’t always agree with me,” he said, referring to Sharon by his nickname. At the same time, he lauded him as “one of the greatest military leaders the Jewish people have known,” who understood that Jews “need to be masters of their own fate in their own land.”
Biden spoke of an indomitable and complex man guided by a compass point from which he never deviated: “His North Star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they resided,” he said.
The warrior statesman was laid to rest in a military funeral. On the way to the ranch from Jerusalem, his funeral procession stopped for a ceremony with top generals at Latrun, where Sharon almost died after being shot in the abdomen in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
Shortly after the funeral, rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip struck areas not far from the Sharon ranch without causing damage, according to an e-mailed statement from the Israeli military. Israeli aircraft responded with strikes on two sites in central and southern Gaza, the military said.
‘Toughness of Mind’
Sharon drew praise from Israelis for buttressing security, respect from some world leaders for withdrawing settlements from Gaza, and scorn from Arabs who regarded him as a brutal antagonist.
“Positions, parties, policies, he could leave considerable debris in his wake,” Blair said. “He had the toughness of mind to despise all illusions about the threats facing Israel. But he had the imagination to know that genuine peace, if attainable with honor and dignity both for Arabs and Israelis, is the anchor ultimately for Israel’s security.”
President Barack Obama praised him as a leader who dedicated his life to his country, and said the U.S. remains committed to finding peace for the Israelis and Palestinians.
“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,” Obama said in a statement. “As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”
Palestinian reaction focused on Sharon’s career as a military commander, the politician who built settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the defense minister assigned indirect responsibility by an Israeli government panel for the 1982 slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
“The Palestinian people remember today what this former prime minister did in battles and war to uproot us from our land, in particular what took place in Lebanon,” Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said by telephone.
The Hamas Islamic movement, which seized control of Gaza two years after the Israelis left and is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, said Sharon will be remembered for the pain he caused Palestinians.
Pain to Palestinians
“When the Palestinian people remember Sharon, they only remember pain, blood, torture, displacement and crimes,” Salah el-Bardaweel, a Hamas spokesman, said in a statement. “He is a big criminal and we would never feel sorry for his death.”
An editorial in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm labeled Sharon a “bloody butcher” whose “crimes and massacres committed against Palestinians and Arabs stand witness to unrivaled racism and blood-thirstiness.”
Sharon created antagonism at home, too. Lawmaker Orit Strock, an opponent of the Gaza evacuation, wrote on her Facebook page that Sharon was taken from public life before “wreaking the same disaster” on Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Strock, whose Jewish Home party is part of Netanyahu’s government, later wrote that she hadn’t meant to imply she was glad Sharon fell ill.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is overseeing current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said in a statement that “it is no secret that there were times the United States had differences” with Sharon.
“But whether you agreed or disagreed with his positions -- and Arik was always crystal clear about where he stood -- you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish state,” Kerry said.
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