World Leaders Pay Homage to Israel's Ariel Sharon

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Leaders from around the world gathered in Israel Monday to say a final farewell to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon's official state memorial was held outside the parliament building in Jerusalem.

President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend of Sharon, called him  "a man of the land."

"He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe," Peres said. "He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land."

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was also among those who paid homage to Sharon.

"He was indomitable," Biden said. "But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a north star that guided him, a north star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated. His north star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they resided."

Sharon died Saturday after living for more than eight years in a coma from a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 2006. He was 85.

His stroke took him down at the height of his power, but Sharon's legacy lives on in Israel, for better and for worse.

Older generations remember him as the brilliant and daring general with a swagger -- a hero of the desert in Israel's three major wars from 1948 to 1973.

But he also became a symbol of Israel's occupation of Lebanon in 1982. And as prime minister in 2005, he led a deeply divisive campaign to uproot thousands of Jewish residents of the Gaza strip.

It was done in the name of peace, but Sharon missed the years of rocket attacks on Israel and the Hamas takeover of Gaza that followed the pullout.

Sharon believed Jews had a right to visit their holiest site on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. But when he went there in 2000, the Palestinians launched a second violent uprising, or the Second Intifada.

Israelis elected him prime minister just a few months later.

"He was the last prime minister that actually fought in our war of independence when Israel regained its independence and sovereignty in 1948," former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon said.

Sharon was one of modern Israel's most popular prime ministers and was the longest serving leader until Benjamin Netanyahu came along.

His battlefield exploits earned him the nickname "the Bulldozer." Sharon began his career as a fighter in the Hagannah, the Jewish underground army, and he fought in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. 

In the 1967 Six-Day War, his lightning moves against Egypt in the Sinai helped Israel triple the territory it controlled, almost overnight.

In 1973, with Israel in desperate straits after it was attacked on the holy day of Yom Kippur, Sharon's bold maneuver trapped the Egyptian Third Army and turned the tide of the war. 

But in Israel's next war, Lebanon in 1982, Sharon was disgraced. Many blamed him for failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He resigned as defense minister, but stayed in the mainstream of Israeli political life. 

He also helped mastermind the Jewish settlement building in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza strip, seizing on their strategic value.

"His legacy will be of great leadership. He was very, very proud of his Jewishness," Ayalon said. "He was very proud of Jewish history. He felt the responsibility for the Jewish people and the Jewish history and the re-connection of the Jews to their land." 

At one settlement building ceremony, Sharon insisted, "All those communities that we build in Judea, Samaria, the Gaza District, the Golan Heights, they are not obstacles to peace, they are obstacles to war."

His commitment to the settlements was so strong that many Israelis were stunned when Sharon proposed and then completed his controversial plan to evacuate Jews from the Gaza strip.

As the leader, known as Arik, is laid to rest, Israel is surrounded by unstable enemies on nearly every side. But the Jewish state is stronger than ever, and millions of Israelis know that is due in some measure to Ariel Sharon.

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