Even by Israeli standards, the security precautions being taking for the burial of Ariel Sharon on Monday afternoon are extraordinary. The former Prime Minister is being laid to rest on the family ranch that stands within range of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory taken over by Hamas militants after Sharon ordered out Israeli troops and settlers nine years ago.
Sirens were installed to warn guests of incoming fire, concrete shelters were trucked in and an Iron Dome missile-interception battery moved close to the Sycamore Ranch compound where Sharon spent much of his life. A portion of the house is heavily reinforced from Sharon’s time in office, and security officials say that’s where Vice President Joseph Biden will meet members of Sharon’s family in a condolence visit. Armored vehicles will be positioned nearby to evacuate the most senior officials and guests.
Dozens of Israeli aircraft were aloft throughout the day, from miniature drones to helicopters and fighter-jets, according to Israeli military and intelligence officials. The aircraft crews are scanning for any signs of preparations for hostile fire, and have orders to fire immediately.
Two rockets were launched early Monday morning, but exploded in the Mediterranean Sea – the opposite direction of the funeral. Israeli news agencies quoted officials as saying military officials believe the launch was an ill-timed “weapons test” by Hamas. The Islamist group has launched thousands of rockets, missiles and mortars into Israel since it took over Gaza in 2007. Lately, the group has worked to stop militants from firing rockets, especially since the last Israeli air assault on Gaza in November 2012. Hundreds of uniformed Hamas officers patrol the territory each day to prevent launch preparations by militants who do not answer to Hamas, but they are not 100 percent effective.
Israeli officials specifically worry that a missile will be launched by a timer, pre-set for the hour of the burial, which was announced shortly after Sharon’s death on Saturday afternoon. The area to watch is considerable; a medium range rocket like the Grad could reach the Sharon ranch from anywhere in the Strip.
The situation is also awkward politically. Ordering the 2005 pullout from Gaza was the signature action of Sharon’s five-year term as Prime Minister. It was controversial inside Israel chiefly because it disrupted the lives of 8,000 Jewish settlers, but Sharon was also faulted for refusing to coordinate the evacuation with the Palestinian National Authority, then governed by relative moderates. Critics say that let Hamas claim political credit for pushing Israeli forces, and helped it prevail in legislative elections a year later.
“He was a great military man,” said Estelle Hilai, 60, a mourner who was paying her respects to Sharon’s coffin on Sunday on the plaza outside the Knesset building. “At the end, disengagement, we didn’t think highly of him.”
– Aaron J. Klein reported from Tel Aviv