JERUSALEM — The state funeral service for Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took place Monday morning amid tight security, and against the backdrop of a crisp and sunny winter morning.
"When a close knit country loses a leader like Sharon it feels like a death in the family," Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the U.S. delegation to Sharon's funeral, told mourners during an eloquent speech, adding: "This man had a commanding presence. He filled the room."
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 afternoon, he will be buried at his family's ranch in the Negev desert in the south of the country.
"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," Israel's President Shimon Peres eulogized at the service Monday attended by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other foreign leaders and dignitaries.
Peres, still spry at 90, called Sharon "the shoulder on whom Israel's security rested."
"The nation loved him and he loved Israel, both its people and its land," Peres said.
Biden said he knew Sharon for 30 years. While he said that U.S. presidents and Sharon had some "profound differences" over the years, "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."
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.
Two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip just hours ahead of Ariel Sharon's funeral but they did not appear to have landed in Israel.
Quoting a security source, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel had "passed the message" to Hamas officials in Gaza to ensure that no rockets are fired during Sharon's funeral at the late prime minister's ranch in southern Israel, which is just a few miles from the Gaza border.
"It was made clear to them that tomorrow would be a very bad day for anyone there to test Israel's patience," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Anita Tucker, who lost her home and farm in 1995 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 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.
The system was first deployed in 2011 to intercept rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israel, often from land Israel relinquished during the disengagement.
Tucker lived in temporary quarters until a year ago, when she and more than 50 other uprooted families moved into a new community.