Members of the Knesset guard carry the coffin of late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Knesset Plaza in Jerusalem. Picture: Bernat Armangue

Jerusalem - Israel paid homage on Monday to Ariel Sharon at a memorial service honouring one of its most skilled but controversial leaders who was hailed internationally for his dedication to the Jewish state.

At an outdoor ceremony under cloudless blue skies, the burly former general who died on Saturday, was eulogised by both Israeli leaders and foreign dignitaries for his military prowess, his lifelong defence of Israel's security, and his political courage.

But Sharon was also remembered as a “complex” character whose actions could have destructive consequences following a decades-long career which saw him both reviled as a warmonger and hailed as a peacemaker.

He will be laid to rest in a ceremony at 12.00 GMT at his family's Sycamore Ranch in the southern Negev desert, which lies a few miles from the northern border of the Gaza Strip.

“You never rested in service of your people, when defending your land and making it flourish,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres standing in the Knesset plaza, where Sharon's flag-draped coffin stood on a black marble plinth.

“The land from which you came will embrace you in the warm arms of the history of our nation to which you added an unforgettable chapter,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a bitter opponent of Sharon's withdrawal of all troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, focused on Sharon's “unique contribution” to Israel's security, saying it would be “engraved on the pages of our nation's history.”

Taking to the podium wearing a black Jewish skullcap to address the sombrely-dressed crowd, which included ministers and diplomats from 20 countries, US Vice-President Joe Biden remembered Sharon as a “historic leader” whose guiding star was “the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.”

“Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man... (who) lived in a complex time in a complex neighbourhood,” said Biden, hailing him for both his military courage and his political courage in pushing through Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

Former British premier Tony Blair remembered him as “passionate” about his country but a man who “could leave considerable debris in his wake.”

“Tough but shy, indomitable but a servant to his people,” said the Middle East Quartet envoy. “He was a giant in this land.”

After a final prayer intoned by a Jewish cantor, eight members of the parliamentary honour guard lifted the coffin and took it to a waiting convoy as his family stood by and watched.

His body was then taken to a military memorial site in Latrun on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, where Sharon was wounded in the 1948 war of independence.

From there, it was to be driven to Sharon's ranch for a military funeral at 12.00 GMT where he will be buried next to his second wife, Lily.

Given the burial site's proximity to Gaza and the large numbers of mourners likely to attend the funeral, the police and army beefed up security in the area and around the Hamas-run enclave.

Media reports said the army had deployed a battery of the Iron Dome missile defence system in the area to counter possible rocket attacks, but there was no confirmation by the army.

Once known chiefly as a ruthless military leader who fought in all of Israel's major wars, Sharon switched to politics in 1973, championing the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

He was long considered a pariah for his personal but “indirect” responsibility in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Later in life, Sharon surprised both friends and foes alike by masterminding Israel's withdrawal of 8 000 settlers from Gaza, earning him the bitter hatred of both his former rightwing nationalist allies.

Although many have never forgiven him, Zeev Hever, a veteran settler leader who spoke at the memorial, hailed the many years Sharon had fought to build up the settlements.

“You taught the Jewish people how to fight and then how to settle,” he said, describing him as “the father of the settlement movement”.

“Your disengagement from our shared path... was difficult and painful. The questions remain unanswered, the pain is great, but a deep love covers everything,” he said. - AFP