Jerusalem, ZZZ, Sep 29 – Israeli leaders, former US president Bill Clinton and tens of thousands of mourners gathered outside parliament Thursday to pay last respects to Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, whose body was lying in state.
A major security operation was being put in place ahead of Friday’s funeral, which is to be attended by leaders from across the world, including US President Barack Obama and Britain’s Prince Charles.
In a rare visit to Jerusalem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was also planning to attend, Palestinian officials told AFP.
Peres’s death on Wednesday at age 93 after suffering a major stroke triggered an outpouring of grief and tributes that hailed the Israeli ex-president’s transformation from hawk to fervent peace advocate.
On Thursday morning, a solemn ceremony saw President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein and opposition leader Isaac Herzog lay wreaths beside Peres’s flag-draped coffin at a plaza outside parliament.
Later in the day, Clinton arrived in Israel and travelled directly to view Peres’s coffin, appearing moved as he stood silently before it.
Clinton had helped usher in the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s, which resulted in the Nobel prize for Peres.
The plaza was opened to the public following the visit by the Israeli leaders, and an estimated 30,000 mourners made their way into the grounds after passing through stringent security checks.
Many took photographs as they approached. A cordon kept them around five metres (yards) from the coffin.
“It’s important that my children understand and respect what this man did, his values, his love for Israel, his want for peace,” said Marielle Halimi, who arrived with her three children and waited for more than an hour to enter before leaving in tears.
– ‘Unprecedented scale’ –
In a career spanning seven decades, Peres held nearly every major office, serving twice as prime minister and as president, a mainly ceremonial role, from 2007 to 2014.
He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.
Peres’s body lay in state all day, while Israel’s blue-and-white flag has been lowered to half-mast around the world.
Around 8,000 police were being deployed for the commemorations on Thursday and Friday, and roads were being closed in Jerusalem.
“We are dealing with an operation on an unprecedented scale,” said police chief Roni Alsheikh.
The last time such an event was held in Israel was the funeral for Rabin, Peres’s rival in the Labour party but partner in negotiating the Oslo accords.
Peres will be buried in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery next to Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the accords.
Obama led world leaders in paying tribute to Peres, calling him a friend who “never gave up on the possibility of peace”.
He ordered US flags flown at half-staff.
Besides Obama and Prince Charles, other leaders due to attend the funeral include Clinton, French President Francois Hollande and Spain’s King Felipe VI.
About 70 countries were expected to be represented, Peres’s office said.
But while those in the West and within Israel hailed Peres as a peacemaker, many Palestinians and those from Arab nations have called him a “war criminal”.
They have cited his involvement in successive Arab-Israeli wars, the occupation of Palestinian territory and his support for settlement building before his work on Oslo.
He was also prime minister in 1996 when more than 100 civilians were killed while sheltering at a UN peacekeepers’ base in the Lebanese village of Qana fired upon by Israel.
Abbas, who signed the Oslo accords and negotiated with Peres, has however called him a “brave” partner for peace and is planning to attend the funeral, Palestinian officials told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, called on Abbas “to reverse his decision to participate in the funeral”.
From the Arab world, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is also due to attend. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel.
– Nuclear architect –
Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British-mandated Palestine when he was 11.
He joined the Zionist struggle and met David Ben-Gurion, who would become his mentor and Israel’s first prime minister.
Peres became director general of the nascent defence ministry at just 29.
He was a driving force in the development of Israel’s nuclear programme in the 1950s.
The country is now considered the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation, but Israel has never publicly acknowledged it.
After leaving office as president, he had sought to maintain an active schedule, particularly through his Peres Center for Peace.
Despite his reputation as a statesman, Peres never managed to outright win a national election. Many in Israel opposed to the Oslo accords also blamed him for what they saw as their failure.
But in later life, especially during his time as president, he came to be widely embraced.