Israel holds state memorial ceremony for Ariel Sharon

Story highlights

  • Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is buried at his ranch in the Negev desert
  • Sharon added "an unforgettable chapter" to Israel's history, Shimon Peres says
  • Joe Biden says Sharon was committed to the survival of Israel and the Jewish people
  • Sharon is remembered for his controversial military and political career

International leaders and top Israeli officials attended a state memorial ceremony Monday for Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died last week.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were among those at the official ceremony outside Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Under bright sunshine, rows of mourners gathered around Sharon's coffin over which the blue-and-white Israeli flag was draped.

"You never rested when in service of your people, when defending your land and when making it flourish," said Israeli President Shimon Peres, who delivered a eulogy to Sharon at the beginning of the ceremony.

A towering military and political leader, Sharon died Saturday after eight years in a coma.

Peres, a friend and sometimes rival of Sharon's, compared him to "a lion," saying he'd contributed "an unforgettable chapter" to Israel's history.

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'A complex man'

Wearing a skullcap and sunglasses, Biden sat alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his speech, Biden praised the tenacity of Sharon, a divisive figure in the Middle East.

"Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man ... who engendered strong opinions from everyone," he said.

"But like all historic leaders -- all real leaders -- he had a North Star that guided him, a North Star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated. His North Star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they resided."

The memorial was followed by a funeral procession that included a stop in Latrun for a special meeting of the Israel Defense Forces and ended with a military funeral at Sharon's Shikmim Ranch. Sharon was wounded in Latrun in 1948 during Israel's war for independence. He was buried at the ranch in the southern Negev desert.

Security was tight throughout.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, spokesman of the Israeli military, said that two rockets fired from Gaza landed around Sha'ar Hanagev in southern Israel. He could not confirm the proximity of where the rockets landed to the funeral. There were no reports of injuries.

'One of the giants'

Thousands of people Sunday paid their last respects to Sharon as his body lay in state outside the parliament.

"He was one of the giants. He was very special," said Ayala Weisel, who said she grew up learning of Sharon as a widely admired soldier who fought for his country.

She was one of many mourners who shared memories of Sharon.

Chaim Friedman, a tour guide, described Sharon as a decisive leader.

"He was known as the bulldozer because he got his way and he made things happen. He's well respected for that," Friedman said. "Sometimes in Israel, you have to do it the straight way, or you have to find the other way to get things done, and he managed to do it."

Read more: Sharon's life on the front lines

A darker view

But others have painted a darker picture of Sharon's legacy.

And the same decisions that made Sharon a controversial figure during his lengthy tenure as a military man and politician were back on display in the initial reactions to his death.

These moments include his role as defense minister during the 1982 war in Lebanon. During that conflict, he was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli inquiry in 1983 for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was forced to resign.

He also raised ire in the Arab world by encouraging Israelis to build settlements on occupied Palestinian land but later did an about-face and pushed for the historic withdrawal from settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which were turned over to Palestinian rule for the first time in nearly four decades.

"We deal with the death of Sharon as an end for the crimes he committed against the Palestinian people," said Isra Almodallal, a spokeswoman for Hamas, the Palestinian movement that runs Gaza. "The biggest crime was the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, and we deal with Sharon as a criminal person."

Read more: Five things to know about Sharon