UK & World News

  • 13 January 2014, 14:48

Ariel Sharon Remembered As 'Military Legend'

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has been buried next to his wife on the family ranch in the south of the country.

The military funeral took place near Sderot close to the Gaza border as Israel increased security ahead of the event.

Mr Sharon, who was affectionately known as "Arik" among his loyalists, died on Saturday at the age of 85 after being in a coma for eight years following a stroke when he was still PM.

At a memorial service on Monday morning, Mr Sharon was described as a "military legend" who devoted his life to protecting his country's security.

The ceremony was held in parliament, known as the Knesset, in Jerusalem, which was attended by dignitaries including US Vice President Joe Biden and former British PM and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said: "Arik was a man of the land. 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."

Nicknamed 'The Bulldozer' in his early career, the veteran soldier fought in all of Israel's major wars before beginning a turbulent political career in 1973.

His supporters called him a war hero but his critics considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed.

Mr Sharon, who was elected premier in 2001, spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlements.

But in a surprising move, he led a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after a 38-year presence in a move he said was necessary to ensure Israel's security.

Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had resigned from Mr Sharon's government to protest at the Gaza withdrawal, called him "one of the big warriors" for the nation of Israel.

Mr Biden praised Mr Sharon's determination in carrying out the Gaza pullout.

He said: "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 from his perspective to strengthen Israel.

"I can't think of a more difficult and controversial decision he made. But he believed it and he did it. The security of his people was always Arik's unwavering mission."

And he talked about a decades-long friendship with Mr Sharon, saying the death felt "like a death in the family".

Mr 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 honour and dignity, both for Arabs and Israelis, is the anchor, ultimately, for Israel's security."

The funeral and burial took place at the family ranch in the Negev desert, six miles from the northern border of the Gaza Strip. Mr Sharon was laid to rest next to his second wife, Lily.

Israel had warned authorities in Gaza not to allow rocket fire during the service.

The Israeli army reportedly moved part of its Iron Dome aerial defence system to defend against possible rocket attacks.

Gaza is controlled by Hamas Islamists who have fought Israel several times over the past few years.

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