Sharon's death: Israelis pay last respects to founding father

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel prepared to pay its respects Sunday to Ariel Sharon, both admired and reviled for his uncompromising style and whose death drew emotional reactions even after eight years in a coma.

Celebrated as a military hero by some, recognised as a pragmatic politician by others and despised as a bloodthirsty criminal by his foes, Sharon was a polarising figure at home and abroad.

But Israelis of all stripes acknowledged Mr Sharon as a key figure in their country's history, whose death at 85 on Saturday left President Shimon Peres as the Jewish state's last surviving founding father.

Mr Sharon's body was to lie in state on Sunday at Jerusalem's Knesset, or parliament, between 1000 GMT (6pm Singapore time) and 1600 GMT, a statement from the prime minister's office said.

Mr Sharon will be buried on Monday afternoon at his ranch in the Negev desert in southern Israel in a military ceremony.

He had been comatose since January 4, 2006, after a massive stroke. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse on New Year's Day when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "his memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation", while Peres said he would be "greatly missed".

World leaders also sent condolences, with US President Barack Obama describing him as a leader who "dedicated his life to the State of Israel".

Vice President Joe Biden will lead a US delegation to the memorial service due to be held in parliament on Monday before the burial.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, remembered Sharon warmly as a "big bear of a man" who in his final years "surprised many in his pursuit of peace."

Mr Sharon was once known chiefly as a ruthless military leader who fought in all of Israel's major wars, before switching to politics in 1973 and championing the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

He was long considered a pariah for his personal but "indirect" responsibility in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

His early career as a warrior earned him the moniker "The Bulldozer", but most world leaders chose to remember the politician who surprised many by overseeing the dismantling of settlements from Gaza in 2005.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urged Israel to build on his "legacy of pragmatism" to achieve a viable Palestinian state.

The Palestinians were quick to welcome the news of his death, which prompted an outburst of celebration in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement.

The hardline group said Mr Sharon's death was a "historic moment" marking the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood".

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Jibril Rajub, a senior official with the more moderate Fatah organisation, also welcomed Sharon's death, blaming him for the still-unexplained 2004 death of Yasser Arafat.

"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," he said.

Ms Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said it was "a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses".

One of the last members of the generation that founded the Jewish state in 1948, Sharon leaves a complex legacy which also includes the sprawling barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.

His policy of separation from the Palestinians culminated with the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza, a bold move that earned him the hatred of his former nationalist and settler allies.

Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to immigrants from Belarus, Mr Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

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