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Middle east

Israel’s ‘unwavering’ Sharon honoured at burial

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-13

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was buried on Monday, as mourners paid homage to a man who was hailed as a war hero at home, but seen by many in the Arab world as a war criminal.

Sharon was buried at his family farm following a first ceremony in Jerusalem. Speakers described him as a man whose fate was entwined with that of Israel’s ever since it was established in 1948.

US Vice President Joe Biden and former British prime minister Tony Blair laid wreaths at his grave, 10 km (6 miles) from the border of the Gaza Strip, with the army on high alert lest any rockets be fired out of the Palestinian territory.

Two missiles were launched into southern Israel soon after the funeral ended, the army said. It responded with air strikes on two militant camps in Gaza, Palestinian officials said. No injuries were reported in any of the attacks.

“We are accompanying to his final resting place today a soldier, an exceptional soldier, a commander who knew how to win,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in Jerusalem, Sharon’s hefty coffin draped in Israel’s blue and white flag.

Sharon died at the age of 85 on Saturday after spending the last eight years in a coma caused by a massive stroke.

His death has reopened debate into his legacy, with foes denouncing his ruthless conduct in military operations while friends praised him as a strategic genius who had stunned the world in 2005 by pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip—a Palestinian territory in the south.

“The security of his people was always Arik’s unwavering mission - a non-breakable commitment to the future of Jews, whether 30 years or 300 years from now,” said US Vice President Joe Biden, using Sharon’s nickname.

After the memorial service at parliament, Sharon’s body will be driven from Jerusalem to his family farm some 10 km (6 miles) from Gaza, where he will be buried later in the day.

Security Concerns

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting he had not always seen eye-to-eye with Sharon on policy matters - particularly the Gaza withdrawal - hailed the former leader’s commitment to Israel’s security.

“Arik understood that in matters of our existence and security, we must stand firm. We are sticking to these principles,” Netanyahu said.

“Israel will continue to fight terror. Israel will continue to strive for peace, while protecting our security. Israel will act in every way to deny Iran the capability of arming itself with nuclear weapons.”

Israel has beefed up security for Sharon’s burial and warned Gaza’s Islamist rulers not to allow rocket fire during the ceremony held at Sharon’s ranch, which Biden is also due to attend.

An Israeli security source said Israel had “passed the message” to Gazan authorities to prevent any rocket fire during the ceremony at the farm. Gaza is governed by Hamas Islamists who fought several times with Israel over the past few years.

“It was made clear to them that ... it would be a very bad day for anyone there to test Israel’s patience,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Reuters correspondent heard two explosions in northern Gaza on Monday morning which sounded like rocket impacts. An Israeli military spokesperson said there had been no launches across the border. Israeli media said the blasts appeared to have resulted from Palestinian militants testing their weapons.

Security sources said Israel had deployed an Iron Dome rocket interceptor near Sharon’s Sycamore Farm, which has been hit by Gaza-launched rockets in the past.

A continuing quest for peace

How to handle Gaza is among the sticking points in Israel’s US-sponsored peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s rival based in the occupied West Bank.

During his brief visit to Israel, Biden will discuss the so far fruitless diplomatic efforts with Netanyahu and Peres, US officials said.

The vice president will also seek to ease Netanyahu’s concerns about world powers’ interim nuclear deal with Israel’s arch-foe Iran, which takes effect on January 20.

US President Barack Obama, who took office in 2009 and made his first presidential visit to Israel last year, did not come. The only trip of his presidency to pay his respects to a foreign leader was last month, when he attended a memorial service in South Africa for former president Nelson Mandela.

Lives intertwined with Israel’s history

Sharon and Peres are the last of the so-called 1948-generation of leaders who played a part in Israeli public life from the very foundation of the nation.

“Israel’s very survival was against all odds, but thankfully, Israel was blessed with a founding generation that understood exactly what it took to overcome those odds,” said Biden, directing his comments to Peres at Sharon’s memorial.

Sharon spearheaded military campaigns in several wars with the Arab world, expanded Jewish settlement-building on land the Palestinians want for a state, and then, as prime minister, made the shock decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005.

Famously beefy and brusque, Sharon was also widely hated by Arabs for what they regarded as harsh and aggressive policies, including a 1982 invasion of Lebanon in a bid to stamp out Palestinian guerrillas as well as military crackdowns and settlement-building in occupied territories.

He was forced to stand down as defence minister in 1983 after an Israeli probe said he bore “personal responsibility” for not preventing the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Israeli-allied Christian militiamen.

Written off at the time, he soon bounced back and served as prime minister from 2001 until his stroke.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

Date created : 2014-01-13

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