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Thousands say farewell to Israel's Ariel Sharon

1:44 PM, Jan 12, 2014   |    comments
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JERUSALEM -- Tens of thousands of Israelis came to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Sunday to say farewell to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday, eight years after he was felled by a massive stroke.

Following a memorial service at the Knesset on Monday morning, which will be attended by foreign dignitaries including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Sharon will be buried at his beloved ranch in southern Israel, next to his late wife, Lily.

At the Knesset Sunday, dark clouds hovered over the plaza, where Sharon's coffin, covered with a crisp blue-and-while flag, lay in state. The coffin, below which colorful flowered wreaths sat, was flanked by an honor guard. Flags flew in the cold wind at half staff. Some of the mourners lit memorial candles placed on the ground.

The steady stream of visitors, though respectable, was much smaller than the huge numbers who stood for hours in line after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That murder, committed in 1995 by an Orthodox Jew who wanted to stop the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, shocked the nation.

Sharon's death, in contrast, was due to the stroke, and had been expected for more than a week.

Still, visitors at the Knesset were visibly moved by Sharon's death and legacy. They included older Israelis who personally remembered Sharon's many military victories in wars they had fought; and younger Israelis who recalled his fateful decision to evacuate settlers and troops from Gaza.

Though Sharon was proudly secular, many who came to say their goodbyes were Orthodox Jews, some of whom recited psalms in his memory. High school classes, youth groups and soldiers came, as well.

The crowd parted when a contingent of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian clergymen dressed in flowing black robes and carrying a wreath came to pay their respects.

Tonie Moushowitz, who immigrated to Israel from South Africa in 1969, said she was impressed with Sharon's military prowess from the start.

"He was a great warrior. He saved us during the 1973 Yom Kippur War" by surrounding the Egyptian army and pushing it into retreat. "He was a man who didn't always follow orders and thank God for that. I don't know where Israel would be today if he had."

Shuki Cohen, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War who had personal encounters with Sharon during the war and as his sometimes-driver later in life, said Sharon "was a good man, inside and out. "

Cohen, now in his 70s, recalled how, when he and other Israeli troops were stationed in Egypt, "Sharon always made sure that the troops had food to eat. He cared about his soldiers."

Carmella Schachar, 69, of Jerusalem, grew emotional when talking about Sharon, whom she called "a hero. He was a member of the founding generation, a father of the country."

Schachar expressed understanding for the many Israelis who criticized Sharon for quitting Gaza, where nearly 10,000 Jews lost their homes and livelihoods. "Despite government promises, many of the settlers lived in makeshift dwellings for years and never recovered financially or emotionally," she said.

Had Sharon not become ill, "I'm sure he would have taken care of the residents," Schachar added.

Calvin Speigel, an Orthodox American Jew studying at an Israeli university, called Sharon "a political maverick" who "will leave a great void. When he was leading the country other nations knew that Israel would fight for its survival and stand up to its enemies."

Some of the people paying their respects were tourists.

"I'm here because it seemed like the right thing to do," said Reuven Zahavy, an Orthodox Jew from New York who is visiting the country. "I'm moved to see that there are people saying psalms in accordance with Jewish custom. There is no better way of paying respect."

Not all Israelis respected Sharon, however.

Zimra Siegman Schlessinger, who did not travel to the parliament building, said Sharon's decision tore her and her family from their home in the Jewish settlement of Neveh Dekalim in Gaza.

"Now terrorists sit atop the rubble that was once our home and shoot rockets onto Israeli civilians. I'd like to thank Ariel Sharon for all he has done for the nation of Israel," Schlessinger said.

USA Today

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