In Jerusalem Sunday, Israelis assembled at the Knesset plaza to pay their last respects to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday at age 85. An Israeli flag was draped over Sharon’s coffin, and two military chaplains whispered prayers for hours, a way of keeping the body company before its burial.
With a military career that spanned three decades, Sharon holds a warm place in the hearts of many former soldiers. Abe Dorevitch served in the Sinai field hospital in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. He said it was a brutal posting, with maimed and dead Israeli and Egyptian soldiers filling up the stretchers. So, when Sharon famously marched across the Suez Canal, wearing a bandage around his injured head, it was a moment of relief.
“That uplifted so many soldiers,” Dorevitch said. “So, I’ve come to pay my respects to a great man.”
Silvan Shalom, currently a minister in Netanyahu’s government, served as Ariel Sharon’s deputy. He walked on the paved plaza wearing a Knesset-issued skullcap. Besides being an accomplished soldier, Shalom said, Sharon was a political battering ram and a stubborn man who never once agreed to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand.
“When he moved to politics he was the one who had his own ideas,” Shalom said of Sharon. “Prime ministers didn’t always like it, but still, he was a real leader who many admired, and I had privilege to serve as his deputy. He always believed he was right.”
President Shimon Peres laid a wreath at Sharon’s coffin. On Monday, Peres eulogized Sharon as “the shoulder on whom Israel’s security rested.”
“Arik was a man of the land,” Peres said. “He loved the smell; he cultivated the hills, he sowed and he reaped. 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.”
At the Knesset Sunday, well-wishers lit large white candles spread out on the ground. Groups of high school children walked by, along followed by weathered generals, former and current settlers, and yeshiva students.
Twenty-four-year-old Aharon Tiferet said he learned about Sharon through a biography.
“After I read most of it, I saw how much interesting this man was, how great a warrior he was, and how dangerous his career was to protect Israel and to protect our lives,” he said.
Of course, Sharon’s legacy in Israel is far from monolithic. His war achievements were many; so were his casualties. In 1983 he was held responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon and sacked from the government. As prime minister during the Second Intifada, Sharon commanded a crushing re-invasion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Sharon’s greatest political about-face came in 2005, when he withdrew 21 Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. Known as the disengagement, the move was a traumatic event for the settlers of the region, who clung to their homes as Israeli soldiers dragged them away and bulldozed the buildings. Schoolteacher Sigal Reuveni said it was a challenging time.
“It was the right thing to do,” Reuveni said. “But maybe the way he did it, without preparation, was difficult for the settlers.”
Haya Ben Yair, a high-tech worker, saw the disengagement differently. She took a bus from a suburb of Tel Aviv to say goodbye to Sharon.
“Ariel Sharon was a leader who said something and did it,” Ben Yair said. “He said peace and we need to withdraw, and he went for it even though it was hard. Bibi—it’s been eight years and I don’t see any result in the future.”
Sharon was buried Monday on his farm in the Negev desert. He is survived by his sons Omri and Gilad.
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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.