September 16, 2010
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.
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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.