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Israelis bid farewell to Sharon Sunday

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JERUSALEM — Thousands of Israelis bade farewell on Sunday to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the maverick warrior-statesman who helped reshape the Middle East, as his body lay in state outside parliament in Jerusalem.

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Sharon died at the age of 85 on Saturday after eight years in a coma caused by a stroke he suffered at the pinnacle of his political power. He will be buried on Monday in a military funeral on his farm in southern Israel.

“They say old soldiers do not die, they fade away. Arik Sharon faded away eight years ago, and now we truly say goodbye to him,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, using Sharon’s nickname, wrote in a tribute on Sunday.

Sharon was one of Israel’s finest military strategists and most powerful and decisive political figures. He spearheaded military campaigns in several wars with the Arab world, expanded Jewish settlement-building on land the Palestinians want for a state, and made the shock decision to withdraw from one of those territories, the Gaza Strip.

Sharon was also widely hated by Arabs for what they regarded as harsh and aggressive policies,.

Prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke shortly after he quit the right-wing Likud party and founded a centrist faction to advance peace with the Palestinians.

, whose 2000-2005 “Intifada” uprising he had battled with air strikes and fierce military offensives.

In parliament’s main plaza, Israelis filed past Sharon’s coffin, which was draped in the blue-and-white national flag.

The mood was sombre but not deeply mournful, eight years after Sharon fell from public view. A few in the crowd wept, but many others paused to snap photographs of the coffin with their cellphones.

“Whatever he decided to do, he followed it through to the end - and that was his greatness,” said Shlomo Tal, 74, from Jerusalem, who came to parliament to pay his respects.

LOVED AND HATED

Sharon drew the long-standing enmity of Arabs over the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camp in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel, where he was defense minister at the time.

A lifelong farmer, Sharon was known as “the Bulldozer”, in part for his headlong pursuit of hardline policies that included a major growth in settlements across terrain Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

But the United States and other foreign powers mourned him as a peacemaker in later life, noting his pursuit of dialogue with the Palestinians. Negotiations continue under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although gaps remain wide.

“He was bound to the land. He knew that the land must be protected. And he understood above all else that our existence is predicated on our ability to protect ourselves by ourselves,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday after ministers stood for a minute’s silence as a mark of honor.

Many Israelis will remember Sharon as a brilliant but unpredictable military leader who fought in the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and, rising to general, went on to earn a reputation for trigger-happy disobedience on some occasions.

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