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Hunting for Ariel Sharon

From the desert ranches of southern Israel to the hospitals of Tel Aviv, it took being ignored, dismissed and eventually detained by Israeli intelligence to catch a glimpse of Israel’s former leader.

September 16, 2010 | 12:44 pm

Sycamore Ranch: Benjamin Joffe-Walt / TML Photos

Sycamore Ranch: Benjamin Joffe-Walt / TML Photos

In the illustrative children’s cartoons, “Where’s Waldo?”, readers are asked to feast their eyes on a confusing, highly unrealistic scene to find a lankly, ridiculous-looking little man in a striped red shirt named ‘Waldo’, or, if you’re a Brit, ‘Wally’. Many of the illustrations contain a number of ‘red herrings’: red and white objects deceptively similar to Waldo, but are not actually Waldo.

Finding Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel and arguably the Jewish state’s most influential leader in the last 15 years, is a similar task.

The search begins on Google. Almost a dozen books have been written about Sharon. There are hundreds of eulogy-like profiles; thousands of articles about the stroke that ended his political career; and tens of thousands of blogs and Twitter messages speculating about his state since.

Some say he rests at his Sycamore Ranch in Israel’s southern Negev desert. Others say he is still in the Tel Hashomer Hospital outside Tel Aviv. Some say he has been transferred to the intensive care unit and is on his last breath. Rumors on Twitter last month even claimed he had died.

Mostly, though, the mainstream Israeli media says very little about the country’s former leader.

“There is certainly a degree of caution, perhaps too much caution, as to what we write and how we write about him,” says Ran Revnik, the lead writer at the Israeli health journal Menta. “It’s not exactly taboo, but the situation is a bit bizarre, because there is a prime minister who is not with us yet he didn’t die, so it’s a bit out of the box.”

“I also think there is just nothing to write,” Revnik adds. “When there were changes in his condition we wrote about it, but now he’s a vegetable. What is there to say?”

Sharon, a provocateur for most of his life, is a legend of Israeli military and political history whom former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once referred to as “the bad guy who seemingly looks forward to a war.”

Sharon first rose to fame as a platoon commander during Israel’s War of Independence, then as the head of Israel’s first special forces unit, responsible for the 1953 Qibya massacre, which resulted in over 65 civilian deaths and massive destruction in the Arab village. Sharon became a national hero during the 1973 Yom Kippur War by crossing the Suez Canal, but was later forced to resign as defense minister after being found personally but indirectly responsible for the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre during the 1982 Lebanon war.

Ten years ago this month Sharon famously ascended Jerusalem’s Temple Mount escorted by 1,000 police officers a few days ahead of what became the Second Intifada and was a prominent patron of the movement to build Jewish communities in the territories captured in the 1967 War. As prime minister, however, Sharon led the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

That all ended in December 2005, when Sharon suffered a minor stroke. He was hospitalized for two days and prescribed anticoagulant (blood thinning) medication.

He was quite popular in Israel at the time.

Then, on January 4, 2006, Sharon suffered a second, massive stroke while at his ranch. He was taken by ambulance to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, where he underwent two separate operations for a total of 21 hours and placed in an induced coma.

On the night of his stroke Sharon was declared “temporarily incapable of discharging his powers” and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took over the reins of government. Within a few months Israel held elections and Olmert won handily, officially replacing Sharon.

As Israel went through notable political turmoil during the intermittent transition, the local press was full of scandals regarding his care after it was revealed that Sharon had been prescribed blood thinners after his first stroke despite him being diagnosed with a brain disorder known as cerebral amyloid angiopathy. Patients with the disease are known to have a significantly elevated risk of cerebral hemorrhage if they take blood thinners.

Medical experts believe Sharon lost all his cognitive abilities during the stroke and that he is in a permanent vegetative state with little chance of waking up.

But in April 2007, Sharon’s son Omri told Israel’s Channel 10 News that his father was able to respond to verbal stimulation with a slight tightening of his hand.

Once famous for his size, Sharon is now fed through a feeding tube and is said to weigh some 110 pounds. Due to immune deficiency his medical caretakers do not allow anyone to visit him, save the occasional visit by his sons.

The search continues with Dov Weisglass, former chief-of-staff to then-Prime Minister Sharon, now a lawyer in Tel Aviv.

“As a matter of strict principle, the family will not speak with anyone, or allow any visitors,” he warns. “His sons made a decision, right or wrong, that they do not cooperate with the media whatsoever. It’s nothing personal.”

I get the beeper number for Gilad Sharon, the former prime minister’s son, from an acquaintance. ‘Who still uses a beeper?’ I think to myself, and send Gilad a message.

Two days later, while out at a bar, I get a call.

“Hi, Benjamin?” the caller says.

“Yes,” I say.

“This is Gilad.”

“Which Gilad?” I say, not yet recalling that I had sent the son of Israel’s former leader a beep over 48 hours ago.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Apparently it’s the wrong number.”

Dial tone…

Getting nowhere, I head to Sharon’s famous Sycamore Ranch, which sits less than four miles from the northeastern border of the Gaza Strip just outside the city of Sderot.

Colorfully covered Asian workers sweat in the fields and endless rows of citrus trees are lined up in sandy, light soil.

Sharon spent most of his free time in this pastoral valley. During his time as prime minister, he would retreat to the ranch on Fridays with an entourage of his closest advisers, a group which came to be known as “The Ranch Forum”, a reference to their influence over the country’s most important decisions.

Today the ranch is surrounded by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Said to be worth upwards of ten million dollars, the ranch begins with a huge gate with an intercom greeting visitors. Inside, one can see a couple of large homes with orange, shingled rooftops, a basketball court, farming equipment and an extensive compound beyond view.

“They are not here,” the guard claims through the intercom, advising me to leave because the Sharon sons are not home. “I’ll give them your number and ask them to call you.”

Feeling a bit like an ashamed stalker, I retreat from the gate and call directory assistance, looking for the personal phone numbers of Sharon’s sons Omri and Gilad.

“You have the wrong Omri dumb-ass,” the person on the other end says, in a style typical of Israeli telephone etiquette. “There are other Omri Sharon’s on this earth.”

I speak to a number of Omri and Gilad Sharons, all of whom have similarly delivered answers.

I drive half a mile up the road and meander about in the Sharon family citrus grove. Sweaty and baking in the noon heat, the trees take on a dazzling bright glow, almost colorless in the sun.

A pickup pulls up and a chubby bald man with a well-rounded face belts out at me.

“Can I help you?” he says in a run of the mill attempt at an intimidating voice.

“Uhhh, no I just got lost I’ll be on my way,” I say, assuming the man is a nosy farm laborer from the area.

There is something strange about him, though, and I tilt my head, staring inquisitively as my face winces in the sun. Like two dogs not yet sure if they should pounce, he too tilts his head, looking straight back at me.

I drive off, only a few minutes later realizing that the sullied, round faced questioner was Omri Sharon. I kick myself a few times, then continue on the hour drive to try my luck at Tel Hashomer, where, many claim, Sharon is hospitalized.

The Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer is the Disneyland of Israeli hospitals, a massive complex of a few dozen large buildings.

An official at the hospital tells me he is not authorized to give me any information as to the status or whereabouts of the former prime minister without the family’s permission.

“He is a private person, just like you and me,” says Amir Merom, a hospital spokesperson, over the phone. “You need the family’s permission.”

I pipe back that the former prime minister is not, by any objective standard, a simple, private person, and that reaching the family is not exactly a matter of opening the phone book.

“Believe me,” I said. “I’ve tried that approach.”

Beyond many episodes of ER I realize I have very little understanding as to where in a hospital a former prime minister in a vegetative state might be placed after a massive stroke four years prior.

I try Neurology… Nope. The recovery wards… Nope. Then long term care… Not here. Geriatrics… Also no.

Eventually I am directed, with a nurse’s wink of an eye, to the rehabilitation hospital on the other side of the complex, but it has 800 beds spread out over 14 wings.

I try every single department and after about an hour of wandering and a few more helpful winks from other nurses, end up in ‘Respiratory Care’ and notice a few heavily armed guards.

“That’s a bit strange for a few old people on oxygen” I think to myself. “Bingo.”

A bunch of visitors and a paramilitary policeman with black boots and a machine gun sit twiddling their thumbs in the entrance lobby. None of them pay any attention to me.

I walk through the 18 bed ward and an agent from the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence service, recognizable by his earpiece and sour demeanor, also pays me no mind.

I ask the head nurse, Marina, about Sharon.

Marina and her team of nurses regularly move the former prime minister and monitor him 24 hours a day at a cost of some $400,000 a year to the Israeli taxpayer.

A bit taken aback, Marina says journalists have never come there, and I need the permission of Dr. Arie Wolner, head of the department.

She directs me to Dr. Wolner’s office and past a third Shin Bet agent who, not paying any attention to my conversation with Marina, allows me through thinking I have arrived for a consultation with the doctor.

A bearded, middle-aged man with glasses, Dr. Wolner’s office is in a back cove of the respiratory ward right next to Sharon’s room. Realizing this, it occurs to me that I have now made it past three armed guards and could simply walk into Sharon’s room and speak to him, photograph him or, if I were an assassin, kill him.

The door to Sharon’s room is simply open and for a former prime minister, he is surprisingly unprotected.

Perhaps out of fear of being shot, perhaps out of respect for the Sharon family, I decline the temptation and approach Dr. Wolner.

“The family’s explicit request is not to give out any information about Mr. Sharon’s condition,” the doctor says, adding that Sharon’s sons visit regularly. “I’m forbidden to speak to you about this.”

“A”, a 26-year-old Shin Bet guard from the Israeli city of Ramat Gan who let me past, realizes I’m a journalist and takes me back to the lobby, where I am detained for an hour by his superior “U”, a former paratrooper and a paramilitary policeman.

The intelligence agents are less interested in my journalistic intentions than in how I managed to get past all three guards without being questioned. 

They politely ask me a number of routine questions, search all my belongings, and bicker with one another over whose job it was to stop me. 

After an hour or so I am escorted out of the complex by a hospital security guard, and both Shin Bet guards have since ignored my olive branch request to be friends on Facebook.

I never did get to see Sharon.

Once a military and political legend, who founded the Israeli special forces, took the Suez Canal and forced his country out of the Gaza Strip, today arguably the most influential provocateur in Israeli history is said to lie motionless, weighing less than half what he once did, his only sign of life the occasional blink of an eye.

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