NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Israel said its last farewell to the late Ariel Sharon on Monday with a state ceremony outside the parliament building before his flag-draped coffin was taken on a cross-country procession to its final resting place at his family home in the country’s south.
With a high-powered crowd of VIPs and international dignitaries on hand, Sharon was eulogized as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting Israel’s security.
Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair headed the long list of visitors.
In a heartfelt address, Biden talked about a decades-long friendship with Sharon, saying the death felt “like a death in the family.”
“He was indomitable,” Biden 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,” Biden said.
Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85.
One of Israel’s greatest and most divisive figures, Sharon rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister at the time of his stroke.
He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. But in a surprising about-face, he led a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after a 38-year presence in a move he said was necessary to ensure Israel’s security.
His backers called him a war hero. His detractors, first and foremost the Palestinians, considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon’s Cabinet to protest the Gaza withdrawal, said that he and Sharon didn’t always agree with each other. Nonetheless, he called Sharon “one of the big warriors” for the nation of Israel.
“Arik was a man of actions, pragmatic, and his pragmatism was rooted in deep emotion, deep emotion for the country and deep emotion for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said.
As CBS 2’s Chris Wragge reported Sharon was described by many as a fearless warrior who devoted his life to making Israel a nation with safe and secure borders.
“In the history of Israel, Ariel Sharon will be written down as one of the greatest military commanders we ever had. One of the great fighters for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
New York officials and Jewish groups were among those praising Sharon’s legacy.
“This man passed away from this world, this true Jewish hero, this soldier who expressed bravery for the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Mordecai Takarski.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement Saturday commending Sharon’s dedication to public service.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement New Yorkers were mourning his death. Both officials said New York has shared a special bond with Israel.
“Sharon committed his life to the State of Israel, and also dedicated so much of his energy toward a real and lasting peace in the region,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Nearly 10 years on, the withdrawal from Gaza remains hotly debated in Israeli society. Supporters say Israel is better off not being bogged down in the crowded territory, which is now home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
Critics say the pullout has only brought more violence. Two years after the withdrawal, Hamas militants seized control of Gaza and stepped up rocket fire on Israel.
Sharon’s coffin lay in state at the Knesset’s outdoor plaza where Israelis from all walks of life paid respects throughout Sunday.
After the ceremony ended, the closed coffin, draped in a blue and white Israeli flag, was placed in a military vehicle and driven in a police-escorted convoy toward Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel.
Crowds stood along the roadside and on bridges, snapping pictures and getting a final glimpse of the coffin as the procession of vehicles left Jerusalem and snaked down the highway outside the city’s picturesque hills.
The convoy made a brief stop at Latrun, the site of a bloody battle where Sharon was wounded during Israel’s war of independence in 1948, for a brief military ceremony before continuing south.
His coffin was lowered into the ground in a military funeral at the family farm in southern Israel.
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