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Israel bids farewell to defiant defender

Biden among eulogists before Sharon’s burial

Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, called Ariel Sharon “the shoulder on whom Israel’s security rested.”

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, called Ariel Sharon “the shoulder on whom Israel’s security rested.”

SDEROT, Israel — Ariel Sharon, the fighter and farmer from Israel’s founding generation who became a prime minister both revered and reviled, was buried here Monday on a hill overlooking his family ranch. In twin ceremonies, he was eulogized as a courageous commander and pragmatic politician who relentlessly defended the land he loved.

“Like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a north star that guided him,” Vice President Joe Biden said at a morning memorial in front of Israel’s Parliament building in Jerusalem. “His north star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they resided.”

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Though Sharon’s “actions earned him controversy and even condemnation,” Biden said, “he seemed never in doubt.” Calling him “a complex man,” Biden noted that “he also lived in complex times in a very complex neighborhood.”

At the afternoon funeral here, a couple of miles from the Gaza Strip — where Sharon famously dismantled Israeli settlements in 2005 — dignitaries in dark suits mixed with citizens in jeans and sun hats, some of whom brought bouquets plucked from their fields. Omri Sharon, the elder of Sharon’s two surviving sons, addressed his father directly.

“Look around you and see, these people that are gathering around this hill, look how they thank you for defending them, how they cherish you for protecting them and leading them forward,” he said. “You are worthy of your own people, Daddy.”

Ariel Sharon died Saturday at 85 after eight years in a state of minimal consciousness following a stroke that aborted his prime ministership as he was contemplating historic steps to end Israel’s long occupation of Palestinian territory.

It was a stark turnabout after a career creating settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and aggressively battling Arab enemies, which had earned him international ire.

Nicknamed in life both “the Bulldozer” and “the Butcher,” Sharon was remembered Monday not only for his bravery and boldness but also for his humor and sensitivity.

President Shimon Peres, at turns an ally and rival, called Sharon “the shoulder on whom Israel’s security rested.”

Gilad Sharon, Sharon’s youngest son, noted that his father had defied doctors’ predictions by surviving nearly two weeks after his kidneys failed, just as he had ignored military orders and political protocol throughout his life.

“Time after time you have made the impossible a reality,” Gilad Sharon said during the hourlong service here. “This is how the myth and the legend of a whole nation is created.”

The Israeli military said that shortly after the funeral, two rockets fired from Gaza struck open areas on the Israeli side of the border; two rockets were also launched in the morning. The Israeli air force said it hit what it called “two terror sites” in Gaza in response. About 800 police officers had been deployed to secure the funeral location, along with the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Neither service drew the numbers organizers had planned for, with empty seats on the Parliament plaza and video screens here beaming over largely barren hills.

The 90-minute morning service, washed by winter sun, mixed personal anecdotes with political messaging. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not miss an opportunity to mention what he sees as the Iranian nuclear threat and said that despite their deep disagreements, he and Ariel Sharon both believed Israel’s security should be paramount in any agreement with the Palestinians.

“Arik understood that when it comes to things that are of essence to our security and our existence, we have to stand firm,” Netanyahu said, using Sharon’s boyhood nickname. “The state of Israel will continue to steer toward peace while protecting our security.”

Biden reiterated the United States’ “unflagging” commitment to Israel, but in a nod to the US-brokered negotiations underway, said of Sharon, “he left us too soon but the work of trying to reach peace continues.”

From Jerusalem, Sharon’s coffin was carried in a military truck to the Latrun fort, near where he had been seriously wounded in the 1948 war that established the state of Israel. Then the cortege went to the family ranch here in the Negev desert.

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