Ariel Sharon laid to rest at family ranch in Negev desert after state funeral

Israel's former prime minister is buried next to his late wife following formal state memorial ceremony at the Knesset

His final journey was a fitting one for Israel's last great soldier-statesman. On the bare floor of an open-backed military truck, Ariel Sharon's flag-draped coffin jolted along a rough track to a hilltop spot overlooking his ranch on the edge of the Negev desert, where he was laid to rest next to his beloved wife.

Seven generals and one admiral hoisted, with some difficulty, the flag-draped casket on to their shoulders, then manoeuvred it into the grave. After removing the blue and white Star of David, they set to work tipping sacks of soil into the grave until the coffin of one of the most distinctive and divisive figures in Israel's history disappeared from view.

The funeral ended with a three-shot salute fired over the grave. A short while later, in a symbolic reminder of the place held by Gaza in Sharon's military and political career, two rockets fired from the nearby strip of Palestinian territory landed on open ground . Further rocket fire was later reported, and Israeli planes unleashed air strikes.

Alongside state pomp and military protocol, typical Israeli informality was also much in evidence at the funeral, despite tight security. Above the mourners, a helicopter circled and a surveillance balloon filmed comings and goings.

This was the family's moment, a return home for "Arik", following a formal state memorial ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, and a military service at an army base in Latrun earlier in the day.

Sharon, the former prime minister who died on Saturday aged 85 after eight years in coma, had made known his wish to buried at the ranch rather than the customary resting place for political and military leaders, Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.

Not all members of the family were admitted to the seated VIP area on the hill overlooking Sharon's farm. Slava Shnerov, 71, a cousin of Sharon who had spent time with him as a child, and last saw him comatose in a hospital bed in 2006, had not been included on the list of special guests. "No one informed me," she said, without bitterness, adding: "This is a sad day for Israel, not just the family."

The VIP area was packed with Israeli political and military figures, and dignitaries from 21 countries. Tony Blair was present as the Middle East Quartet's special envoy, foreign minister Hugh Robertson represented Britain, and Joe Biden, the US vice-president, was among the mourners. Only the Czechs sent a head of state; most countries sent ministers.

Following the burial, a rabbi performed the kriah, the symbolic tearing of the clothes to create an opening through which grief is released, on Sharon's sons Gilad and Omri. Then the brothers – Gilad visibly emotional, Omri more controlled – recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, ahead of a series of eulogies led by the military chief of staff Benny Gantz.

"Arik, the commander. You had many titles over the years, but I think this is the one that suited you most," Gantz said at the graveside. "Generations of soldiers came to salute you for the last time today … I came to salute you too."

Earlier, at the formal ceremony at the Knesset, Biden described Sharon as "a complex man … [who] lived in a complex time in a complex neighbourhood", alluding perhaps to his role in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. But the US vice-president also lauded his political courage in withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza less than six months before the stroke which took him out of public life.

In his eulogy, Blair said the man known as the bulldozer "could leave considerable debris in his wake. But always his destination was clear. As was his motivation." Whether people thought good or ill of Sharon, he said, "he was a giant of this land".

Veteran settlers' leader Zeev Hever, a friend of Sharon, reflected the enduring bitterness felt in some quarters over Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza. "You taught the Jewish people how to fight and then how to settle. Your disengagement from our shared path … was difficult and painful. The questions remain unanswered, the pain is great, but a deep love covers everything," he said.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, who turned 90 last summer, laid the first of more than a dozen wreaths and then, in a touching gesture, placed a posy of brightly-coloured anemones – a flower which carpets the area in late winter – on the grave of Sharon's late wife Lily.

Sami Ibrahim, 82, an Iraqi Jew who came to Israel in the 1970s, said he had come to honour Sharon "because he was our leader, he was responsible for us". Rachel Merchant, 58, said: "I'm here for Arik. He was a very special man. Everybody loved him."


Harriet Sherwood at Shikmim farm

The GuardianTramp

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