Correction appended: Jan. 12, 2014, 11:12 p.m. E.T.
Under a low, slate overcast, the coffin containing the body of Ariel Sharon lay in state on Sunday on the grounds of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. All day, ordinary Israelis gathered to pay their respects, remark on the extraordinary role the man played in the history of the state, and exchange thoughts on why more people did not turn out.
“I was surprised,” says Rina Cohen, who arrived from Miami for a wedding and ended up at the prelude to a state funeral, set for Monday. “I expected more.”
“You know what?” says Yehuda Haviv, who came with her. “The reason is eight years.” That’s the duration between the January day in 2006, when Sharon suffered a massive stroke, and the January day in 2014, when his body finally succumbed to the damage. Eight years is a long time to get used to the idea that someone is not coming back.
Sharon’s death on Saturday dominated Israel’s daily papers and broadcast and digital media. Tributes flowed from every quarter of Jewish Israeli society. But at midday in Jerusalem, the number of photographers and reporters outside the Knesset frequently exceeded the number of mourners. Judging by the number of police on hand and attendants standing by with water coolers stationed every few meters, preparations had been made for many more.
“He was the type of leader I think we won’t have more of,” says Liran Tamari, 20. “He was very determined, and when he wanted to do something, he did it. And today, you see our Prime Minister and other leaders, they make a decision and then they retract it.”
Tamari, who is doing his military service, recalls where he was the day Sharon collapsed. He was 12 years old at the time and Sharon 77. “It was a Friday,” Tamari says. “I went with my mother shopping. I remember seeing the broadcast on the phone. I was hoping he would get over it.” He pauses, looks around and says to his companion, “Not many people.”
Most of those who did show up are closer in age to Sharon than to Tamari. “He’s from my generation,” says Itzik Dogo, 75, who, like several others on hand, turns out to have served under Sharon. “I took part in the military-retaliation operations in 1955,” Dogo says. As a major, Sharon headed Unit 101, specifically created to strike as hard on Arab targets as the irregulars known as fedayeen had hit Jews. Dogo was under Sharon’s command in a surprise attack on Husan, a village near Bethlehem from which militants had repeatedly killed Jews in South Jerusalem. “In that same operation, I was wounded. But it was all for the state, for the defense of the state.”
That theme was heard most often in the stream of appreciations that flowed inside Israel: gratitude for a warrior — the one-word title of Sharon’s 2001 autobiography — who made Jewish Israelis feel safe, at a time when the feeling was not a common one. In the early 1950s, Israel did not yet have the atomic bomb, an American promise that its military would always have a “qualitative military edge,” nor peace treaties with any of its neighbors. From the Palestinian perspective, the reprisal strikes carried out by Unit 101 would become the first entry on a list of “atrocities” published as his legacy. But on the walkway beside Sharon’s coffin, draped in the blue and white flag of Israel, it was regarded as important work.
“I don’t think it was cruelty per se,” says Yona Amitai, a professor of management at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan who served under Sharon. “It was a feeling that this type of action was needed.” Sharon’s unit demonstrated to both Arabs and to Israelis that the Jews could hit as well as be hit, a critical lesson for the young nation, Amitai says. “It’s not only the physical things you do, but what the enemy thinks of you,” he adds. “Deterrence was built in these actions, and absorbed by the next generation of Israel’s military.”
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Amitai was with Sharon as a physician on the west bank of the Suez Canal, which Sharon famously took back from Egyptian forces in a daring and pivotal battle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “I am here to respect his memory,” Amitai explains and looks around. The sparse turnout, he says, stands in contrast to the cathartic public outpouring for Yitzhak Rabin, another general turned Prime Minister, whose 1995 assassination at a rally for peace was as dramatic as Sharon’s death was peaceful and expected.
“By contrast with Rabin, whose murder was in real time in front of tens of thousands and the media, in this case there was eight years,” the professor says. “Things faded. People had time to separate. Or forget. Whatever. He deserves much more than that.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the year when Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke. It was 2006, not 2005.