JERUSALEM — Israelis and international dignitaries amid tight security paid tribute Monday to Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a controversial figure lauded for his devotion to the Jewish state and his leadership of the military.
Israel's President Shimon Peres, 90, called Sharon "the shoulder on whom Israel's security rested."
"Arik was a man of the land," Peres, using the nickname of his longtime friend and sometimes rival of Sharon, said in his eulogy. "He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe. He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land."
Sharon loved Israel and the nation loved Sharon, Peres said.
"The story of your life is bound to the story of this country. And your life was dedicated to the life of this country. Your footprints are imprinted on every hill and in every valley," Peres said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Vice President Joe Biden and other foreign leaders and dignitaries attended the memorial.
"When a close knit country loses a leader like Sharon it feels like a death in the family," said Biden, who had known Sharon for 30 years. "This man had a commanding presence. He filled the room."
While U.S. presidents and Sharon had some "profound differences" over the years, Biden said, "we have never failed to support Israel's legitimacy ... that will never change. Israel is not going anywhere. As long as there is a United States of America, you are not going anywhere."
Just hours before the funeral, militants in the Gaza Strip fired two rockets, but they did not appear to have landed in Israel.
"We are prepared for every conceivable scenario from at the event to rockets from the Gaza Strip," Southern District Police Chief Yoram Halevy told USA Today.
The parliament's vast plaza, where Sharon's flag-draped coffin was flanked by an honor guard, and flags flew at half mast, was filled with thousands of mourners: Sharon's two surviving sons and grandchildren (a third son died when he was 11); dignitaries, government and military officials and many of the people who knew Sharon — known for his personal warmth and charisma — during his long, tumultuous life.
Sharon's coffin had been lying in state since Sunday at the Knesset's outdoor plaza where Israelis from all walks of life paid respects.
On Monday, following the memorial, the coffin left the Knesset for the northern Negev, where Sharon, a lifelong farmer, was buried with military honors at his family's Sycamore Ranch in a plot beside Lily, his wife of 37 years.
"Today, when you return to your beloved home one last time, long lines of fighters have come to salute you for the last time. Rest in peace, commander," Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said. "The land on which you established your family, which you made on your own, for which you fought for with your own hands, is the one that takes you to your eternal rest."
The ranch in southern Israel is just a few miles from the Gaza border.
Quoting a security source, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel had "passed the message" to Hamas officials in Gaza to ensure that no rockets would be fired during Sharon's funeral at the late prime minister's ranch. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said security officials made it clear that Monday "would be a very bad day for anyone there to test Israel's patience."
Sharon's sons, whose shirts were ripped as a sign of Jewish mourning, recalled their father's military and political achievements, but also his personal warmth and strength. .
Gilad Sharon, one of Sharon's two sons, urged the settlers evacuated from Gaza and their supporters to remember that before destroying settlements, Sharon built 100 others.
On a more personal note, the son also recalled how his father persevered after Sharon's oldest son, Gur, then 11, was killed in a gun accident. Gur's mother, Margalit, Sharon's first wife and Lily's sister, died in a car accident five years earlier.
On Saturday, the day Sharon died, "your grandchildren were running around in the room. We held a lively discussion like we used to at home, only you were lying motionless," Gilad Sharon said. "Beloved father, you have returned home."
The ex-prime minister and army commander died Saturday at the age of 85 after spending the last eight years in a coma following a stroke.
Marcus Sheff, Executive Director of the Israel office of The Israel Project, who met Sharon as a young journalist, said he found the legendary military intimidating.
"But the humor came through and his remarkable personality came through. He was very entertaining as much as it was a good political interview," Sheff said.
Sharon led Israel "in its darkest days," Sheff said, after the newly established state was attacked in 1948 by seven Arab armies.
"Ariel Sharon was an icon, he was much loved by Israelis - this is a very sad day for Israelis," Sheff said.
In 2005, as prime minister, he turned his attention to peace, withdrawing Israeli citizens and soldiers from Gaza.
Anita Tucker, who lost her home and farm in 1995 when Israeli troops, acting on Sharon's orders, removed nearly 10,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, called it "ironic" that Sharon's funeral will be guarded by an Iron Dome mobile defense system, deployed in 2011, that shoots down rockets and mortars.
"The Iron Dome is protecting the funeral and the dignitaries out of fears of a rocket attack from the land that used to be our homes. That's what I call irony," Tucker said.