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Peres’s death brings Israelis together to say goodbye

Israelis line up before paying their respect in front of the coffin of former Israeli president Shimon Peres at a plaza outside the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, on September 29, 2016 in Jerusalem.  Israeli leaders and crowds of mourners are gathering outside parliament to pay last respects to ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, whose body is lying in state. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

Israelis line up before paying their respect in front of the coffin of former Israeli president Shimon Peres at a plaza outside the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, on September 29, 2016 in Jerusalem.<br />Israeli leaders and crowds of mourners are gathering outside parliament to pay last respects to ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, whose body is lying in state. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

Thousands braved tight security and streamed into a plaza outside Israel’s parliament Thursday to have a few seconds to bow, pray and take a picture before the flag-draped coffin of ex-president Shimon Peres.

The long line of visitors overseen by dozens of security officers distributing water bottles and instructions began to file past the coffin at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) and continued uninterrupted throughout the day.

The atmosphere at the plaza was not one of enormous grief following 93-year-old Peres’s death on Wednesday following two weeks in hospital after suffering a stroke.

But the relaxed atmosphere may have been what he would have preferred, with the Nobel Peace Prize winner having embraced his life in the public eye, including by posing for selfies with admirers in his later years.

“I was really inspired by pausing in front of his coffin, like I wanted to absorb everything that this man could bring me,” said Dani Levite, a 22-year-old Scout chief.

“If only we could all have a little of Shimon Peres in us.”

The crowd included school groups and families with children who used the occasion to pass on the story of Peres, a man whose life has touched so many important moments in Israeli history.

The last remaining founding father of the country, he had held nearly every major office.

He was prime minister twice and served 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.

Early in his career, he was also an architect of Israel’s undeclared nuclear programme.

More recently, he was an advocate of technological innovation in the “start-up nation,” a phrase Israelis often use to refer to their country.

– Moment of unity –
Peres had in earlier years a mixed reputation in Israel and was often seen as a political schemer.

He was initially more of a hawk than a dove, and he drew the wrath of many Palestinians and Arabs over his support for Jewish settlements before he became a fervent peace advocate.

But as he grew older, he began to be widely appreciated and respected as a sharply intelligent statesman who could charm the famous visitors who increasingly sought him out.

Because of the Oslo accords, many right-wing Israelis had trouble forgiving him, believing the peace agreements were a failure and a capitulation to the Palestinians.

“I must say that I’m surprised,” said Daniel, a French-Israeli who lives in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and who did not want to provide his last name.

“If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would pay tribute to Shimon Peres, someone whom I completely disagree with, I would have never believed him.

“But I am here and it is moving for me. He is one of the fathers of the country.”

Such an atmosphere of unity can seem increasingly rare in Israel, marked by sharp political divides in recent years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is seen as the most right-wing in the country’s history.

Zohar Wenger, a young Jewish religious student wearing a skullcap, said he came to soak in such unity.

“I remember when I was a soldier, it was my dream to be able to meet him,” he said.

“It never happened, but today before his coffin I was close to him for the first and last time and I just told him thank you.”

He said Peres had finally managed to bring all generations and political beliefs together.

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