Ariel Sharon laid to rest in family ceremony after state funeral

Divisive former Israeli prime minister is buried next to late wife at ranch on edge of Negev desert

The final journey was perhaps a fitting one for Israel's last great soldier-statesman. On the floor of an open-backed military truck, Ariel Sharon's coffin was brought up the hill overlooking his ranch on the edge of the Negev desert, to be placed in the ground next to his beloved late wife.

The eight military generals first hoisted the flag-draped casket on to their shoulders with some difficulty, then manoeuvred it into the grave. Immediately they set to work emptying bags of soil into the cavity until the coffin containing the remains of one of the most divisive figures in Israel's history disappeared from view.

This was the family's moment, following a formal state memorial ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, and a military service at an army base in Latrun. But not all members of the family were admitted to the seated VIP area on the hill. Sharon's cousin, Slava Shnerov, 71, who had played with "Arik" as a child and last saw him comatose in a hospital bed eight years ago, had not been included on the list of special guests. "No one informed me," she said, without bitterness. "This is a sad day for Israel, not just the family."

The VIP area was crowded with Israeli political and military figures and dignitaries from almost two dozen countries. Tony Blair was seated next to Israel's hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman; the US vice-president, Joe Biden, was also present. Only the Czechs sent a head of state.

Sharon died on Saturday after spending eight years in a coma that struck him at the height of a decades-long career which saw him lauded as a military hero and statesman, but also reviled as a warmongering criminal. He was 85.

Speaking on Monday morning at the Knesset ceremony, Biden urged Israelis to remember Sharon's mistakes as well as his triumphs, and acknowledged US differences with the former prime minister. But he added: "History will judge that he lived in complex times, in a very complex neighbourhood."

Blair, the Middle East envoy for the Quartet, said Sharon had fought for the state of Israel both in the field of war and the diplomacy chamber. "He had the imagination to know that genuine peace, if attainable with honour and dignity both for Arabs and Israelis, was the anchor ultimately for Israel's security."

Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, acknowledged that he had not always seen eye to eye with Sharon, particularly over the pullout from Gaza. But he added: "Arik understood that in matters of our existence and security, we must stand firm. We are sticking to these principles."

Security was very tight in the area surrounding Sharon's Shikmim farm for the funeral. No private cars were allowed access – instead special coaches were laid on from a nearby technical college, where mourners' possessions were passed through scanners.

A helicopter circled overhead and a surveillance balloon hovered nearby. An area on top of a hill near to the spot where Sharon was laid to rest alongside his late wife, Lily, was penned off with crash barriers. At least six huge screens showed the proceedings live.

"Arik, the commander. You had many titles over the years, but I think this is the one that suited you most," said the IDF's Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, at the graveside.

"Generations of soldiers came to salute you for the last time today … I came to salute you too."

Contributor

Harriet Sherwood, Matthew Weaver and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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