Mourners ranging from Bedouin Arabs and Orthodox Jews gathered Monday to bury Israel’s controversial former prime minister Ariel Sharon on a hilltop overlooking his family ranch in the Negev desert.
Crowds in their hundreds squeezed through tight security barriers, jostling for the best viewpoint as Sharon’s funeral cortege wound its way up a dirt track to the grave site.
“Bye-bye, Sharon!” shouted onlookers fumbling frantically with camera phones to capture the long-anticipated moment, as the military vehicle carrying his coffin rumbled past.
Eight generals lowered the flag-draped coffin into the ground before emptying bags of earth onto it as family members looked on solemnly.
The white-haired general died on Saturday after spending eight years in a stroke-induced coma, leaving behind a vexed legacy.
Sharon had long been denounced by human rights groups as a war criminal for his personal but “indirect” responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres in Lebanon in 1982 and for earlier bloodshed, as a military commander, against Palestinians.
But echoes of these disputes were absent from his funeral, which was attended by a cross-section of Israel’s population ranging from Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem to Druze farmers from the north, as well as foreign dignitaries who sat in an enclosure next to Sharon’s family.
“I disagreed with his decisions in Lebanon as defence minister, of course,” said Shlomo Golan, an 80-year-old who served in an army unit commanded by Sharon during the 1956 Suez crisis.
“But he was a great military leader and a great man, and I’ve come here to honour him,” he said, squinting in the bright sunlight.
Other former soldiers who served under Sharon’s command during his illustrious military career insisted he would be remembered as a war hero, and not for his less-popular political decisions, such as his evacuation in 2005 of all troops and settlers from Gaza.
“The withdrawal from Gaza was controversial, but if Sharon decided that was the right thing to do, then it was,” said Yaakov Cohen, a 78-year-old veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
“He’ll be remembered well — look at all the people turning out for his funeral.”
For decades a champion of the settler movement, Sharon surprised enemies and allies alike when he made good on his pledge to evacuate more than 8,000 settlers from Gaza, ending Israel’s 38-year occupation of the Palestinian territory.
Also among the mourners were Bedouin Arabs, and Druze who had travelled from as far as Galilee in northern Israel.
“We always had good relations with Sharon,” said Mohammed Rammal, a 63-year-old Druze.
“Sharon was very supportive of us farmers when he was minister of agriculture, and my family knew him personally,” said Rammal, who had travelled some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from his Galilee village to attend the funeral.
“He was very humble and human.”
A Bedouin man from the Negev sat next to an Iraqi Jew who had migrated to Israel in the 1970s, chatting in Arabic before the cortege arrived.
“He was our leader. I’ve got no personal attachment to him, but I’ve come to pay my respects as a duty to a former leader,” said smartly dressed 82-year-old Sami Ibrahim, who was a young man when he left his Iraqi hometown of Kirkuk to live in the Jewish state.
Troops fired three volleys of shots from assault rifles before the funeral ended, which echoed across the rolling hills surrounding Sharon’s ranch.
Elan, a 40-year-old Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, proudly showed an almost unrecognisable picture of himself from when he had been one of Sharon’s bodyguards.
“It was a pleasure working with such a strong leader. I was ready to risk my life for him, and I’m proud of that,” he said.