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Israel mourns after death of founding father Peres

A framed portrait of former Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres is displayed outside the presidential compound in Jerusalem, on September 28, 2016 © AFP / Gali Tibbon

Jerusalem, ZZZ, Sep 28 – Israel and global leaders mourned the death of ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres on Wednesday as the country prepared for a funeral expected to be attended by major world figures.

Peres, who was 93, held nearly every major office in the country, serving twice as prime minister and also as president, a mostly 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.

Shimon Peres © AFP / Sabrina BLANCHARD, Thomas SAINT-CRICQ

Peres died Wednesday around 3:00 am (0000 GMT), Rafi Walden, who was Peres’s personal doctor and also his son-in-law, told AFP.

His family praised Peres’s tireless work ethic and what they called his devotion to peace.

“He had no interest other than serving the people of Israel,” said his son Chemi, his eyes moist as he read a letter on behalf of the family at the hospital in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

US President Barack Obama immediately hailed Peres as a friend who “never gave up on the possibility of peace”.

“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves,” he said.

“My friend Shimon was one of those people.”

Obama was among world leaders such as Britain’s Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck and Spain’s King Felipe VI expected to attend Peres’s funeral at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl on Friday.

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His body was also to lie in state on Thursday for 12 hours outside Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Israeli flags around the world would be lowered to half-mast from Thursday morning.

Security was being further tightened, with authorities having already increased deployments ahead of the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in October.

– ‘Profound sadness’ –

US president Bill Clinton (R) and Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres (L) shake hands during a joint press conference December, 1995 in Washington © AFP/File / Paul J. Richards

Bill Clinton, who helped usher in the Oslo peace accords when he was US president, said: “The Middle East has lost a fervent advocate for peace and reconciliation.

“I’ll never forget how happy he was 23 years ago when he signed the Oslo accords on the White House lawn, heralding a more hopeful era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.”

Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” and UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed Peres for working “tirelessly for a two-state solution”.

However, a spokesman for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, welcomed his death and called him a “criminal,” though Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas hailed Peres as “brave”.

While Peres has been lauded abroad and in Israel as a peacemaker, many Palestinians view him very differently, citing his involvement in successive Arab-Israeli wars and the occupation of Palestinian territory.

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.

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– Active in old age –

Shimon Peres (centre) was jointly awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat (left) and Yitzhak Rabin for their efforts to reach a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation © Scanpix/AFP/File / Erik Johansen

Peres had been in hospital since September 13, when he was admitted feeling unwell and suffered the stroke with internal bleeding.

There were signs of improvement last week, and on September 18 Peres’s office said doctors planned to gradually reduce his sedation and respiratory support to judge his response.

But on Tuesday a source said his condition had taken a downturn and he was “fighting for his life”. Family members arrived at the hospital.

In January, Peres was hospitalised twice because of heart trouble.

British model Naomi Campbell (L) and former Israeli president Shimon Peres attend an International Women’s Day conference at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv © AFP/File / Jack Guez

Peres had sought to maintain an active schedule despite his age.

When leaving hospital in January, Peres said he was keen to get back to work.

“I’m so happy to return to work, that was the whole purpose of this operation,” he said.

In March, he met British supermodel Naomi Campbell at his Peres Center for Peace during an event linked to International Women’s Day. On the same day, he met visiting US Vice President Joe Biden.

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.

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Peres became director general of the nascent defence ministry at just 29.

Beyond his accomplishments in the public eye, he was also seen as a driving force in the development of Israel’s undeclared 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made reference to Peres’s work on the nuclear programme on Wednesday.

“As a champion of Israel’s defence, he strengthened its capacities in many ways, some of them still unacknowledged to this day,” he said.

Despite his reputation as a statesman, he 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 in Israel, while world leaders and celebrities sought him out, marvelling at his energy and intelligence.

He once confided that the secret to his longevity was daily exercise, eating little and drinking one or two glasses of good wine.

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