It was an almost legendary funeral for a legendary figure: the broad, scenic fields; the impressive speeches by the two orphaned sons; the military jeep bearing the body of the deceased leader; the ranch in the valley below and the grave site on the hill that will soon be red with anemones. Even the explosions at the end, two rockets from Gaza, lent drama, sending a noisy reminder of the imprisoned territory beyond the hills. No Israeli ever did more harm to Gaza than the man buried here, nor did any Israeli ever do it more good, albeit unintentionally. Ariel Sharon was returning home after eight years of absence.
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Israel’s top officials turned out en masse for the funeral; the international community sent only its second tier. The only national leader present was the Czech prime minister; he was joined by the Cypriot defense minister and Singapore’s foreign minister. Had Sharon died before carrying out the disengagement from Gaza, even these would not have come to honor the man who until then was widely viewed abroad as a war criminal – the Israeli Milosevic. Had he died immediately after falling into a coma, when he was still shrouded in the glory of the disengagement, the international contingent would have been much more impressive.
Either way, however, ordinary Israelis were notably thin on the ground. There were a few from the periphery, a few from agricultural communities, a few religious Jews, a few Arabs, Bedouin and Druze, a few former comrades in arms, a few American immigrants. But most of the white chairs remained empty; a fleet of buses waited in vain for the crowds that never came.
Still, the event was impressive. Sharon, the man and the myth, on his final journey.
Shortly after 2 P.M., the jeep carrying the body drove up from the valley. There aren’t many expanses like this valley, with its fields plowed straight as a ruler, painted in bright greens and browns. And there’s no better season for such an event than a Negev winter.
Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch, visible across the road, roused unavoidable memories of the night and morning I spent there years ago, falling for the charm of both members of the couple now buried side by side. Almost everyone here yesterday has his own personal memories of Arik. More than a few of those present, especially the politicians, were people Sharon scorned in life.
As the jeep approached, a few people ran toward it and tried to touch the coffin. That was the only outburst of emotion visible here yesterday. Everything else bespoke restraint, of the kind praised by the later Sharon, version 2.0. The earlier Sharon didn’t even recognize the word: For decades, he substituted unbridled appetites for force and violence.
A month ago, I attended another impressive funeral, that of Nelson Mandela. There’s no comparison between the two men, not even a single similarity. Yet both were buried in their rural homes. Britain’s Prince Charles didn’t come to Sharon’s funeral, only former Prime Minister Tony Blair; nor did U.S. President Barack Obama, only Vice President Joe Biden. But the view of the surrounding fields and the character of the ceremonies were astoundingly similar.
The peaks of yesterday’s funeral were undoubtedly the sons’ eulogies. Grieving but dry-eyed, never have these two, with their problematic pasts, been so impressive and moving. Omri quoted a lovely poem by Pablo Neruda; Gilad spoke of a father who exceeded all expectations. “They said it’s impossible to live even two weeks without kidneys; so they said it ... They said it’s impossible to eliminate terror from Gaza; so they said it.”
In listing his father’s achievements, Gilad unsurprisingly omitted the great achievement of Sharon 2.0, the disengagement – the elephant in the ceremony that almost nobody dared mention. Gilad indirectly apologized for the disengagement, reminding his father’s critics that Sharon also built some 100 settlements.
It seemed to me that Gilad averted his gaze when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to shake his hand, but perhaps I imagined it. It also seemed to me that I saw real pain in President Shimon Peres’ face – a rarity. But perhaps I only imagined that, too.
Paratroopers in the same uniform that Sharon wore, red boots and red berets, fired three volleys in his honor. The handful of keffiyeh-wearers posed for every available camera – Arabs at the funeral of the “butcher of Beirut.”
“I was his subordinate,” someone whispered in my ear. “He was crazy, and the Arabs fear crazies.”
Throughout it all, Yisrael Maoz of Gan Sorek sat and made pencil sketches of the valley. “We crossed the [Suez] canal together, but Arik isn’t the last giant. We have a lot of other giants; they sprout like flowers here, and then people say there’ll never be anyone like them again. Our children will also someday say there’ll never be anyone like the giants of their generation. So why did I come? Because he’s a symbol, a big giant who has gone.”
As six major generals carried the coffin, effort visible on their faces, someone shouted from the crowd: “There’s no one in the world like Sharon!”
The sun was about to set, and a gentle breeze caressed our faces. The new grave was buried with wreaths from Israel and abroad. And only the sabra cacti surrounding the grave site on all sides recalled what has long since been forgotten: Here once stood the Palestinian village of Al-Hujj.