Middle East

Ariel Sharon death: Israelis pay respects at Knesset

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Media captionAriel Sharon's coffin lay in state outside the parliament building

Thousands of Israelis have filed past the body of ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday aged 85 - after eight years in a coma.

Draped in a flag, his coffin lay in state outside the parliament building in Jerusalem.

A state funeral will take place on Monday before a military burial ceremony at his ranch near Sderot.

Israeli and world figures have paid tribute to Mr Sharon but there was little sorrow among Palestinians.

Mr Sharon's body was brought to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) on Sunday morning and his coffin was then placed on a podium in the plaza outside the building, where it lay in state throughout the day.

Prayers were said as flags flew at half mast. President Shimon Peres laid a wreath and stood in silence beside the coffin.

A steady stream of thousands of people filed past the podium. Many took pictures while others lit candles in memory of the former leader.

The number of people grew as darkness fell, with some elderly mourners moved to tears.

Ministers held a minute's silence at Sunday's cabinet meeting to remember their former leader. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his colleagues that Mr Sharon was "tied to the land and knew that it had to be defended".

A state funeral will be held at the Knesset on Monday, before Mr Sharon's body is taken to his farm, Sycamore ranch, near Sderot in southern Israel where he will be buried in a military ceremony next to his wife Lili, who died in 2000.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to accompany the coffin on his final journey, Israeli army radio reports.

Dignitaries from around the world are thought likely to attend the Knesset memorial service, including US Vice President Joe Biden, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Middle East international envoy Tony Blair and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

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Image caption President Shimon Peres laid a wreath adorned with the words "State of Israel"
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Israelis have been given six hours to pay their last respects to their former prime minister

Mr Sharon, known as "The Bulldozer", was a giant of Israel's military and political scene, whose term as prime minister ended abruptly when he had a major stroke that put him in a coma in January 2006.

Months before his stroke, he had guided Israelis through a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, with the declared aim of easing tensions with the Palestinians.

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Image caption Ariel Sharon's son Gilad visited his mother's grave, where his father is also expected to be buried
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Sharon was admired by Israelis for his military exploits and he made the natural transition to a political role

The BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen said he had shaped the current state of the West Bank and Israel's relations with the Palestinians more than any other Israeli politician in recent years.

He fought in Israel's war of independence in 1948, took part in Israel's invasion of the Sinai in 1956 and commanded an armoured division in the 1967 Middle East war.

In 1973, he led Israel's counter-attack against Arab armies across the Suez Canal, cutting off Egypt's 3rd Army.

But after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 he was found to have been responsible by an Israeli inquiry for failing to prevent the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangist militia in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

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Media captionEx-Vice PM Silvan Shalom Mr Sharon never shook the hand of Yasser Arafat
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Media captionJeremy Bowen looks back at Ariel Sharon's political and military career
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Media captionKevin Connolly reports from Jerusalem: ''Palestinians... saw Sharon as an enemy to be hated and feared''

Palestinians have denounced him as a war criminal and in the Gaza Strip people celebrated his death.

"He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map... He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive," said Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister.