Israel holds state funeral service for ex-PM Ariel Sharon

10:36 AM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
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Video: Memorial Service for Sharon Outside Israeli Parliament

Video: RAW VIDEO: Sharon's Procession Includes Stop at Famed Israeli Military Site

Members of the Knesset guard carry the coffin of late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Knesset plaza, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 12, 2014. Israel is holding a state funeral for the former leader Monday ahead of his burial at his family ranch.



JERUSALEM - Israelis and international dignitaries paid tribute Monday amid tight security to Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a controversial figure lauded for his devotion to the Jewish state and his leadership of the military.

Israel's President Shimon Peres, 90, called Sharon "the shoulder on whom Israel's security rested."

"The story of your life is bound to the story of this country. And your life was dedicated to the life of this country. Your footprints are imprinted on every hill and in every valley," Peres said. "The nation loved him and he loved Israel, both its people and its land."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Vice President Joe Biden and other foreign leaders and dignitaries attended the memorial.

"When a close knit country loses a leader like Sharon it feels like a death in the family," said Biden, who had known Sharon for 30 years. "This man had a commanding presence. He filled the room."

While U.S. presidents and Sharon had some "profound differences" over the years, Biden said, "we have never failed to support Israel's legitimacy ... that will never change. Israel is not going anywhere. As long as there is a United States of America, you are not going anywhere."

Just hours before the funeral, militants in the Gaza Strip fired two rockets, but they did not appear to have landed in Israel.

"We are prepared for every conceivable scenario from at the event to rockets from the Gaza Strip," Southern District Police Chief Yoram Halevy told USA Today.

The parliament's vast plaza, where Sharon's flag-draped coffin was flanked by an honor guard, and flags flew at half mast, was filled with thousands of mourners: Sharon's two surviving sons and grandchildren (a third son died when he was 11); dignitaries, government and military officials and many of the people who knew Sharon - known for his personal warmth and charisma - during his long, tumultuous life.

Sharon's coffin had been lying in state since Sunday at the Knesset's outdoor plaza where Israelis from all walks of life paid respects. On Monday, following the memorial, the coffin left the Knesset for the northern Negev, where Sharon will be buried at his family's ranch with military honors. The ranch in southern Israel is just a few miles from the Gaza border.

Quoting a security source, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel had "passed the message" to Hamas officials in Gaza to ensure that no rockets are fired during Sharon's funeral at the late prime minister's ranch in southern Israel.

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

The ex-prime minister and army commander died Saturday at the age of 85 after spending the last eight years in a coma following a stroke.

Anita Tucker, who lost her home and farm in 1995 when Israeli troops, acting on Sharon's orders, removed nearly 10,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, called it "ironic" that Sharon's funeral will be guarded by an Iron Dome mobile defense system, deployed in 2011, that shoots down rockets and mortars.

"The Iron Dome is protecting the funeral and the dignitaries out of fears of a rocket attack from the land that used to be our homes. That's what I call irony," Tucker said.

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