Israel bids farewell to Sharon with praise from Blair and VIPs

israel has said its last farewell to Ariel Sharon with a state ceremony outside the parliament building before his flag-draped coffin was taken to its final resting place at his family home in the country’s south.

With a crowd of VIPs and international dignitaries on hand, Mr Sharon was eulogised as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting Israel’s security. US vice president Joe Biden and Tony Blair headed the long list of visitors.

Mr Sharon died on Saturday aged 85, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma.

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One of Israel’s greatest and most divisive figures, Mr 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 lands seized at gunpoint. But in a surprising about-face, he led the historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after 38 years in a move he said was necessary to ensure Israel’s security.

His backers called him a war hero. His detractors, first and foremost the Palestinians, considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed.

The speakers at the ceremony outside parliament largely glossed over the controversy, and instead focused on his leadership and personality “Arik was a man of the land,” president Shimon 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. “

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Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Mr Sharon’s Cabinet in protest the Gaza withdrawal, said that he and Mr Sharon did not always agree with each other. Nonetheless, he called Mr Sharon “one of the big warriors” for the nation of Israel.

In a reminder of the precarious security situation, Palestinian militants fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip. Mr Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel, where his body was being laid to rest, is within range of such projectiles, but Monday’s missiles did not hit Israel. No injuries or damage were reported.

Mr Blair, now an international envoy to the Middle East, said Mr 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.

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 Mr Sharon’s ranch.