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Sharon funeral highlights conflicting views of Israeli leader

A member of the Knesset guard salutes near the flag draped coffin of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon before a memorial ceremony a
A member of the Knesset guard salutes near the flag draped coffin of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon before a memorial ceremony a

By Matt Spetalnick

SYCAMORE FARM, Israel (Reuters) - Israel buried former prime minister Ariel Sharon at his family farm on Monday, celebrating the military achievements of a man regarded as a war hero at home but as a war criminal by many in the Arab world.

Eulogized first in a ceremony in Jerusalem, and later in the green fields of his estate, speakers hailed a life entwined with that of Israel since its 1948 creation, gently alluding as well to the controversies that also defined his career.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British prime minister Tony Blair laid wreaths at his grave, 10 km (6 miles) from the border of the Gaza Strip, with the army on high alert lest any rockets be fired out of the Palestinian territory.

Two missiles were launched into southern Israel soon after the funeral ended, the army said. It responded with air strikes on two militant camps in Gaza, Palestinian officials said. No injuries were reported in any of the attacks.

"We are accompanying to his final resting place today a soldier, an exceptional soldier, a commander who knew how to win," Israeli President Shimon Peres said in Jerusalem, Sharon's hefty coffin draped in Israel's blue and white flag.

Sharon, 85, died on Saturday after spending the last eight years of his life motionless in a hospital bed, pitched into a coma by a stroke and far from the public gaze.

The death of the former general reopened debate into his legacy. Opponents denounced his ruthless conduct in military operations while friends praised him as a strategic genius who as prime minister stunned the world in 2005 by pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza.

"The security of his people was always Arik's unwavering mission - a non-breakable commitment to the future of Jews, whether 30 years or 300 years from now," Biden said, using Sharon's nickname.

There was no direct mention of events that made Sharon a hated figure in the Arab world, such as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that he masterminded as defense minister. However, in his eulogy, Blair said the man known at home as "the bulldozer" had left "considerable debris in his wake".

Biden referred simply to his "mistakes", saying: "History will judge that he also lived in complex times, in a very complex neighborhood."

The Israeli foreign ministry said dignitaries had come from 21 countries, mainly in Europe, but did not list any delegations from the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.

SECURITY CONCERNS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting he had not always seen eye-to-eye with Sharon on policy matters although they both stood on the right of Israel's political spectrum, praised his commitment to Israel's security.

"Arik understood that in matters of our existence and security, we must stand firm. Israel will continue to fight terror. Israel will continue to strive for peace, while protecting our security. Israel will act in every way to deny Iran the capability of arming itself with nuclear weapons."

Beefy and brusque, Sharon was seen at home as a master of the battlefield: his crossing of Egypt's Suez Canal in the 1973 Middle East war is still studied in military college.

By the same token, the drawn-out 1982 campaign in Lebanon is regarded as his worst mistake, which reached its nadir when hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were killed by Israeli-allied Christian militiamen.

Sharon was forced to stand down as defense minister in 1983 after an Israeli investigation ruled that he bore "personal responsibility" for not preventing the massacre.

Written off at the time, he soon bounced back and served as prime minister from 2001 until he was incapacitated by stroke.

Neither Netanyahu nor Peres mentioned the Lebanon war or disengagement from Gaza, which showed Israel could roll back its occupation of the Palestinian territories given determined leadership. Both Biden and Blair welcomed the pullout.

However, one of Sharon's friends, settler leader Zeev Hever, made clear the sense of hurt felt by some Israelis.

"Your disengagement in the final two years of your term from the path we had walked together was particularly difficult and painful," he told mourners, recalling Sharon's past pivotal role while in various cabinet posts in expanding settlements on territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

ELUSIVE PEACE

Two years after Israel left Gaza, the Islamist group Hamas seized control, calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel had strengthened security for Sharon's burial and warned Hamas not to allow rocket fire during the ceremony.

Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad denounced "our worst enemy, the cursed Sharon" during a rally in Gaza to mark the 2008-09 war with Israel.

How to handle Gaza is among the sticking points in Israel's U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas's rival based in the occupied West Bank.

During his brief visit to Israel, Biden will discuss the so far fruitless talks with Netanyahu and Peres, U.S. officials said. The vice president will also seek to ease Netanyahu's concerns about world powers' interim nuclear deal with Israel's arch-foe Iran, which takes effect on January 20.

Sharon and Peres are the last of the so-called 1948 generation of leaders who played a prominent role in Israeli public life right from the foundation of the Jewish state. ID:nL6N0KC0YR]

"He left us too soon. But the work of trying to reach peace continues," said Biden, hinting that had Sharon stayed healthy, he might have taken further steps after the Gaza withdrawal to end the decades-old Middle East conflict.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer, Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Saleh Salem in Gaza, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Ralph Boulton)

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