ISRAELIS were on Sunday paying their last respects to Ariel Sharon, whose controversial life inspired admiration and provoked revulsion and whose death drew emotional reaction even after eight years in a coma.
Celebrated as a military hero at home, recognised as a pragmatic politician abroad and despised as a bloodthirsty criminal by the Palestinians and the Arab world, the former premier was nothing if not a polarising figure.
But Israelis of all stripes acknowledged the burly 85-year-old as a key figure in their nation's history, his death on Saturday leaving left President Shimon Peres as the Jewish state's last surviving founding father.
The white-haired former general had been in coma since January 4, 2006, following a massive stroke which felled him at the height of his political career.
Ahead of his funeral on Monday, Sharon's coffin was laid in the plaza outside the Knesset, or parliament, from 1000 GMT for the public to pay their last respects.
The Israeli flag flies at half-mast at the Israeli embassy in The Haguein memory of late former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. AFP Photo
Flanked by a parliamentary honour guard, the flag-draped coffin was placed on a black marble plinth with half-a-dozen wreaths laid at the base.
In the first half hour, a steady trickle of people filed past the coffin in respectful silence, most of them middle-aged or elderly. There was no open display of grief.
Earlier Sunday, ministers held a minute's silence in memory of Israel's 11th prime minister as they met for the weekly cabinet meeting, an official statement said.
"He will be remembered in the heart of the Jewish people forever as one of our most outstanding leaders and most daring commanders," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a tribute, according to the statement.
Sharon will be buried on Monday afternoon at Sycamore Ranch, his home in the southern Negev desert after a military funeral at 1200 GMT.
Israeli honour guards carry the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon as it arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem. AFP Photo
World leaders sent condolences over his death, remembering the controversial figure in cautious diplomatic language. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to represent Washington at a special memorial at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday morning.
Others expected to attend are German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, outgoing Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair as well as diplomats from Spain, Russia and Canada.
From 'Bulldozer' to pragmatist
Sharon's dramatic story was the subject of blanket coverage in the Israeli press on Sunday, with the papers dedicating multiple pages to pictures and commentary on his life and legacy.
Once known chiefly as a ruthless military leader who fought in all of Israel's major wars, Sharon switched to politics in 1973, championing the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israeli President Shimon Peres (R) lays a wreath by the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon displayed at the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem. AFP Photo
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 masterminding the pullout from Gaza in 2005.
"Bulldozer in war and peace," said the English-language Jerusalem Post, describing him as "perhaps the most revered and often reviled of the country's politicians, perceived alternately as a peacemaker and a warmonger."
"The last leader," wrote another commentator in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, noting that the political vacuum created by his collapse eight years ago "has never really been filled and it is doubtful that it will be filled in the foreseeable future."
Even Gideon Levy, arguably Sharon's bitterest Israeli critic, paid his respects.
"He was certainly Israel's most courageous politician. He was also its cruellest. He was the leader who used brute force more than anyone to achieve his policies. But he was also one of few to recognise the limits of force," he wrote in Haaretz.
An Israeli man works at former prime minister Ariel Sharon's burial plot, next to the grave of his wife Lily. AFP Photo
In one of the more thoughtful tributes to Sharon, 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 news of his death, which prompted an outburst of celebration in the Gaza Strip, where the ruling Islamist Hamas movement said it was a "historic moment" marking the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood".
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 in 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, 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.
Israelis pay last respects to founding father Sharon