A comatose Ariel Sharon, once revered and feared as a general and a politician, was taken home from the hospital to his cherished ranch in the Negev Desert on Friday, five years after a series of strokes ended his public life.
The 82-year-old Sharon, in a coma since early 2006, was moved to his desert ranch from Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv under heavy escort by Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service. Screens were set up to block Sharon from view.
Close friends said Sharon's hospital care could easily be replicated at the large farm, called Sycamore Ranch, where sheep, cows, chickens and other animals are raised. Sharon, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, enjoyed spending time at the ranch and often conducted key strategy gatherings with his advisors there. It is the burial place of his second wife, Lily.
"What they can do in the hospital, they can do at home," said Erez Halfon, a top advisor to Sharon, who is also known as Arik. "I think Arik wants to be on the farm, and if this is the end, I think he would want it to be there and not in the hospital."
Oren Magnezy, another former aide, described the ranch, in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip, as serene.
"The third floor of his house has a 360-degree panoramic view overlooking the northern part of the Negev desert," Magnezy said. "This is the place in which I had seen him most happy and relaxed."
Officials at the medical center, which has treated Sharon for most of the last five years, said Sharon's home stay would be on a trial basis at first. They said talks about the transfer had begun with Sharon's family almost two years ago.
Shlomo Noy, director of rehabilitation at the center, suggested during an interview with an Israeli radio station that he did not expect Sharon to make a significant recovery. "The improvements that we talk about in such situations are not great improvements, not dramatic improvements," he said.
Friends have said Sharon is breathing independently, although he is at times aided by an oxygen mask. According to Halfon, family members say Sharon has lost little weight and at times opens his eyes or squeezes the hands of his two sons, Omri and Gilad.
Sharon left a complex legacy when the strokes forced him from Israel's political stage.
Domestically, he is often called the father of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and is known for vehemently arguing against returning those areas to Arab sovereignty after Israel captured them in the 1967 Middle East war.
But he also partially reversed that position during his premiership by evacuating Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza, about five months before he became incapacitated. The pullout angered many in Sharon's right-wing Likud Party, prompting him to leave with several of its top members and form the centrist Kadima movement. Kadima led the government from 2006 until 2009, but it lost to Likud in 2009 and now heads the parliamentary opposition.
Among many in the Arab world, the memory of Sharon evokes hostility. He is perhaps best remembered by Arabs for his role in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, after which he was forced to resign as defense minister. Palestinians have also considered him a sworn enemy for his decisions to launch airstrikes, assassinations and other attacks in occupied Palestinian territory and impose harsh measures on the local population during the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.
Nevertheless, his image in Israel remains that of a forceful and charismatic leader, and friends say they haven't given up hope that he will emerge from his coma and make a political comeback.
"I very much pray that a miracle will happen," Halfon said. "I hope that maybe if he smells the farm, the trees and the animals, he'll wake up."
Bekker is a special correspondent.