Israeli mourners have been saying their goodbyes to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ahead of his funeral. US Vice President Joe Biden is set to speak at the divisive late premier's memorial service.
Mourners remembered Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he lay in state at Israel's parliament building in Jerusalem, ahead of a state funeral on Monday.
Thousands of mourners on Sunday passed by the coffin, draped in the blue and white flag of Israel and displayed on a black marble plinth in front of the Knesset. A spokesman for the Knesset told the AFP news agency that more than 20,000 people had filed past.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid his tributes as the Israeli cabinet opened its weekly Sunday session with a minute's silence.
"Arik (Ariel) was, first and foremost, a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish People's greatest generals," Netanyahu told his cabinet, as it opened its weekly Sunday session with a minute's silence. "He was dedicated to the security of the state," added the Israeli premier.
'Prominent and bold'
Netanyahu - who deeply opposed Sharon's 2005 decision to pull Israeli settlers and troops out of Gaza - nevertheless praised Sharon's political career. "I believe that he will forever be remembered in the heart of the Israeli people as one of the most prominent and bold leaders," he said.
A state memorial service planned for Monday is to be attended by Israeli and world leaders, including US Vice President Joe Biden, German Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Sharon's body is then to be taken by military convoy to his ranch in the southern Negev desert for burial in a military ceremony.
Vice President Biden was set to deliver a eulogy for Sharon during the service. His last visit in 2010 caused embarrassment for Washington, the trip coinciding with the controversial announcement by the Israeli government of a major settlement and expansion project in disputed East Jerusalem.
The body was brought to Jerusalem in a convoy under police escort from a military base near the hospital outside Tel Aviv where Sharon died on Saturday at the age of 85. He had been in a coma for more than eight years, having suffered a stroke while still at the height of his power. Sharon's condition had worsened on New Year's Day# when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.
Condemned as a criminal
A divisive figure, Sharon was celebrated as a military hero by many Israelis, while praised for his political pragmatism by international onlookers. However, the former general was also despised by a large portion of the Arab world - being condemned as a "war criminal" by Palestinian leaders.
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-
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 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.
rc/av (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)