Israel is mourning the death of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after he passed away at the age of 85. His body is lying in state in parliament ahead of a state memorial service and burial.
The body of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lay in state at Israel's parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on Sunday as the country paid its respects to a leader who was both admired and reviled.
A statement from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a state memorial service was planned for Monday that would be attended by Israeli and world leaders. Sharon's body is then to be taken by military convoy to his ranch in the Negev desert in southern Israel for burial in a military ceremony.
Sharon, a key figure in Israeli politics for decades, died on Saturday after lying in a coma for eight years following a stroke on January 4, 2006.His condition had worsened on New Year's Day when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.
A former renowned 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, serving until he was incapacitated by his stroke at the height of his political power.
Among other things, he championed the building the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. But he also oversaw the withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which alienated many of his former nationalist and settler allies.
Israeli and world leaders have joined in expressing their condolences at Sharon's death.
Current Prime Minister Netanyahu said "his memory will be forever held in the heart of the nation," while President Shimon Peres (pictured above at Sharon's coffin) - now Israel's last surviving founding father - said Sharon would be "greatly missed."
US President Barack Obama described Sharon as a leader who "dedicated his life to the State of Israel." US Vice President Joe Bidenis to head a US delegation at the memorial service in the Knesset on Monday.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to build on his "legacy of pragmatism" to create a viable Palestinian state, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the 2005 Gaza Strip withdrawal "a historic step toward reconciliation with the Palestinians."
The Palestinian group Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza Strip, has however welcomed Sharon's death, calling him a "criminal."
A senior official from the more moderate Fatah organization based in the West Bank also hailed the death of the former Israeli leader, accusing him of involvement in the death of former Fatah leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004 under circumstances that have yet to be explained.
"Sharon was a criminal, responsible for the assassination of Arafat, and we would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal," Jibril Rajub said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Many Palestinians remember Sharon as the "Butcher of Beirut" for the massacres of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon in 1982 by a Christian militia while Israeli troops stood by. Israel's Kahan Commission found at the time that Sharon, then the defense minister, bore "personal responsibility" for the massacres.
tj/pfd (AFP, dpa)