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Israel

Israeli, foreign dignitaries bid farewell to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been laid to rest at his farm in southern Israel. Earlier, thousands of Israeli and foreign dignitaries gathered in Jerusalem for a state memorial service.

Sharon laid to rest

Following a memorial service, Ariel Sharon's body was taken in a funeral procession to his family farm outside of the town of Sderot near the Gaza Strip where he was laid to rest.

Monday's memorial service began with a eulogy from Israeli President Shimon Peres (pictured above, center), who praised the former premier for his many decades of public service, both in the military and in politics.

"You never rested in service of your people, when defending your land and making it flourish," Peres said.

"The land from which you came will embrace you in the warm arms of the history of our nation to which you added an unforgettable chapter," he added.

Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was second to speak, hailing Sharon as one of Israel's founding fathers and highlighting his role in defending the Jewish state.

"Arik understood that in matters of our existence and security, we must stand firm. We are sticking to these principles," Netanyahu said, referring to Sharon by his nickname.

US Vice President Joe Biden also praised Sharon for his efforts to protect Israel from outside threats.

"The security of his people was always Arik's unwavering mission - a non-breakable commitment to the future of Jews, whether 30 years or 300 years from now," Biden said.

Hero and villain alike

During his decades in public life, Sharon was celebrated as a military hero by many Israelis and praised for his political pragmatism by international onlookers. However, he was also despised by a large portion of the Arab world - being condemned as a "war criminal" by Palestinian leaders.

A former general who fought in all of Israel's major wars, Sharon moved into politics in 1973, becoming a polarizing figure known for his uncompromising positions on many issues. He first became prime minister in 2001.

Among other things, he championed the building and the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. But he also oversaw the withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza, alienating many of his former nationalist and settler allies.

In November 2005, he left the right wing Likud party to set up the more centrist Kadima party, in frustration at hardliners who were opposed to his withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza that year.

However, he suffered a stroke and haemorrhage in January 2006 as he was campaigning for re-election in polls he had been predicted to win. He spent the last eight years of his life in a coma. He passed away on Saturday at the age of 85.

pfd/hc (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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