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Israelis pay last respects as body of Ariel Sharon lies in state

Bernat Armangue / AP

Israel's President Shimon Peres lays a wreath next the coffin of late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Knesset Plaza, Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem on Sunday.

JERUSALEM — Thousands of Israelis — and a few Palestinians — filed solemnly past the casket of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday to pay their last respects to a provocative leader who forged his country’s legacy of independence amid a precarious Middle East existence.

Sharon died early Saturday at age 85 following a massive stroke in 2006 that had left him in a coma.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

People gather as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lies in state at Knesset Plaza on Jan.12, 2014, in Jerusalem, Israel.

A funeral service is set for Monday, when Sharon will be buried on his farm in southern Israel. A high-profile delegation from the U.S. led by Vice President Joe Biden will include U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the White House announced Sunday.

Mourners gathered to remember the iconic Israeli leader and former military general, whose body was laid in state in a plaza in front of the Knesset, the country's parliament. The blue-and-white Israeli flag was fitted over the casket.

“I came here to say to Sharon thank you for all (that) he did for us,” said Bat Sheva Tzahi, 59, a teacher from Jerusalem. “He was a very important man and a part of the history of this land. I like what he did and his thoughts; he was brave and my hero, a very special man.”

Sharon, who fought in four of Israel’s wars, was a divided political figure in the region. He served as defense minister during a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. The bloody incident carried out by right-wing Lebanese Christians allied to Israel angered Arabs.

"They say old soldiers do not die, they fade away. Arik Sharon faded away eight years ago, and now we truly say goodbye to him," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, using Sharon's nickname, wrote in a tribute on Sunday. 

Sharon also courted controversy for pushing for Jewish settlements on Palestinian-disputed land. But in a surprise turnaround in 2005, the then-prime minister withdrew soldiers and ordered 8,500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, ceding the land to the Palestinians after 38 years.

The move, seen as a peace-making concession, won him international plaudits. It also cemented his view as a maverick statesman.

He later left the hardline Likud Party to create his own centrist Kadima Party, which promotes preserving a Jewish-majority in Israel while also allowing for territorial concessions to Palestine.  

Sharon, in a speech just months before his stroke, made it clear he wanted what was best for Israel.  

“There will be no compromise on the right of the state of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, with defensible borders, in full security and without threats and terror,” he said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005.

Sharon's critics, however, say he still had a lot to answer for during his time as Israel's leader in which he supported an eye-for-an-eye approach for dealing with attacks. Some have labeled him a "war criminal" over the Beirut massacre.

"We will not forget what he did, we will not forgive him," said Nasser Laham, 46, editor of the Palestinian news agency Ma'an. "He should be a shame on the history of Israel and a shame for the USA — especially his relationship with George W. Bush."

And Palestinians in Gaza handed out sweets to passersby and motorists in celebration of Sharon's passing. 

"We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant," said Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist faction governing Gaza.

Shlomi Levi, one of the hundreds of mourners Sunday, said he respected Sharon, even though he didn’t always agree with him.

"When he decided to pull from Gaza I wasn’t 100 percent with him since I knew we will still have problems from Gaza — and that's what happened — but maybe time will tell that he was right," said Levi, 49.

Sharon supporter Linda Bar of Jerusalem said she wanted to remember all facets of the leader’s life — and his devotion to a secure Israeli state.

"I came here for Ariel Sharon the soldier, the man that loved this country and the leader; unfortunately today we don’t have leaders like him," Bar said. "He made some decisions that were controversial, but when he did them, he was behind them.

"He never changed his mind," she added, "and it is something we miss today."

NBC News' Lawahez Jabari contributed to this report from Irsael. Erik Ortiz reported from New York, with wire reports.