A state memorial is underway for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the nation prepares for the funeral of a man revered as a war hero in his country but reviled as a war criminal by Palestinians.
Six military generals will carry Ariel Sharon's casket to his grave as Israel bids farewell to the controversial figure who generated awe among friends and detractors alike. Israel's 11th Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon will be buried next to his wife Lily at his Sycamore Ranch in the Negev desert in a ceremony expected to attract tens of thousands of mourners from across the political spectrum.
The funeral procession began this morning at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, at a formal event to be addressed by President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Vice President Joe Biden, former British premier Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon's former secretary Mirit Danon. Dozens of dignitaries from around the world have landed in Israel to attend the funeral.
The procession will then continue to Latrun, where a special meeting of the Israel Defence Forces' general staff is set to be held, and will conclude at Sycamore Ranch with Ariel Sharon's burial at 1200 GMT (1730 IST) and speeches by his sons, Omri and Gilad, and by army chief of staff Benny Gantz.
Security is on high alert for the funeral given its close proximity to the Gaza Strip ruled by Islamist Hamas regime.
Police will deploy 800 officers, border policemen and volunteers to secure the funeral venue which is just six miles from the Gaza Strip with the Air Force and Iron Dome missiles ready to protect the funeral from any possible attacks, security sources here said.
Ariel Sharon's sons, Omri and Gilad, have specifically asked that as many people as possible be allowed at the funeral.
Massive screens broadcasting the ceremony have been placed at a distance away from the grave site to enable crowds to watch the burial. A separate tent has been set up for media teams from around the world who will be covering the event.
Thousands came to the Knesset yesterday to pay their last respects to Ariel Sharon who died on Saturday at the age of 85 after remaining in coma for eight years.
"I am sure that among those who came, there are those who disagreed with him politically, but they all respected him," Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said.
The general public however is not invited to