Israelis pay respects to Sharon

Israelis are filing past the body of ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who has died aged 85 of heart failure after eight years in a coma.

Draped in the national flag, the body is lying in state at the parliament building in Jerusalem. A private burial will take place on Monday.

Israeli and world figures have paid tribute to a man who fought in four major wars before taking up politics.

But there was little sorrow among Palestinians who saw him as an enemy.

A convoy of vehicles brought Mr Sharon’s body from the Tzrifin military base to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) on Sunday, after which members of the Knesset guard carried his coffin to a podiumin front of the building where he is lying in state.

Prayers have been said over his coffin and flags are flying at half mast. The Israeli public will be able to view the coffin until 1600 GMT.

Politicians will hold a special commemoration on Monday, before Mr Sharon is buried next to his wife Lili in a private ceremony at his ranch in Sderot, in the Negev desert in southern Israel.

Dignitaries from around the world are expected to attend his funeral, including the American Vice President, Joe Biden, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres, a long-time friend and political rival who joined a unity government with Mr Sharon in 2001, described Mr Sharon on Saturday as “an exceptional man and an exceptional commander who moved his people and loved them and the people loved him”.

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.

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 beenresponsible by an Israeli inquiry¬†of failing to prevent the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangist militia in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

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.