TEL AVIV // Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli premier, returned to the headlines yesterday after he was moved from the hospital where he has lain comatose for nearly five years to his desert ranch.
Under heavy escort from Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, Mr Sharon, 82, was transferred at sunrise by ambulance from the Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv to Sycamore Ranch, his home in southern Israel.
The timing of his move had been kept secret to avoid having the media photograph him, with numerous dividers placed in the hospital to block him from view and police forces closing off the road leading to the ranch.
Since Mr Sharon suffering a major stroke in January 2006 that left him in a permanent vegetative state, the man nicknamed "the Bulldozer" by many Israelis for his aggressive leadership style, has not been seen in public. His hospital room has been kept heavily guarded and secluded, with only immediate family members and a handful of close friends allowed in.
Yesterday hospital officials and friends of Mr Sharon's family explained the transfer as a long-discussed plan, adding that it was arranged that the ex-premier would receive similar medical care, but in an environment in which he had always preferred to spend his free time.
Sycamore Ranch, located near the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, was purchased by Mr Sharon in 1972 and had often been the retreat in which he had conducted key strategy meetings with his advisers during his premiership from 2001 until he became comatose in 2006. His second wife, Lily, is buried on the farm, where close friends say sheep, cows, chickens and other animals are still reared.
Hospital officials have been tight-lipped about Mr Sharon's condition. Shlomo Noy, the director of rehabilitation at Sheba, indicated during an interview to an Israeli radio station yesterday that he did not expect the former prime minister to improve much at home. "Clearly what's behind this is the hope that his situation will get better," Mr Noy said. "But the improvements that we talk about in such situations are not great improvements."
Close friends of Mr Sharon have said that while he is breathing independently, he is at times hooked to an oxygen mask. They have also said that, while he remains uncommunicative, he responds to basic stimuli such as by squeezing the hands of one of his two sons or at times by opening his eyes. Mr Sharon is also said to have lost little weight from his corpulent figure.
Mr Sharon will at first undergo a trial period at his home, spending a few days there at a time and returning to the hospital for check-ups before being permanently moved.
The media attention drawn by Mr Sharon's transfer reflects the stature that he still retains among Israelis, many of whom have viewed him as an aggressive and charismatic leader throughout his military and political career that began in the early 1940s.
However, Mr Sharon, admired by many at home but reviled by most of the Arab world, has left a complex legacy.
By Arabs, he is most remembered for his role in the massacre in 1982 of hundreds of Palestinians in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and for almost single-handedly creating the settlement movement in the West Bank after Israel occupied the territory in 1967. Many Palestinians also bitterly recall his harsh approach during the second Palestinian uprising that started in 2000, ordering airstrikes, assassinations and other brutal attacks in the West Bank and imposing draconian measures on the local population.
In Israel, many in the older generation regard him as a figure who had helped turn the 1973 Arab-Israeli war in the country's favour by pushing his troops across the Suez Canal in a counterattack that broke through Egyptian lines.
He gained as many admirers as enemies throughout his military and political careers, becoming notorious for violating the orders of his superiors, many of whom had viewed him as uncontrollable.
As prime minister, two of his biggest decisions, the pullout of Israeli civilians and soldiers from Gaza in mid-2005 and, shortly afterward, his exit from the right-wing Likud party to form the centrist Kadima movement, have had varied response.
While the Israeli peace camp initially hailed the Gaza withdrawal as a step towards ending Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, many on the right have blamed the move as helping Hamas to gain control of the seaside area and use it to launch attacks against Israel.
Kadima, whose creation was termed the "big bang" of Israeli politics, ruled the government from 2006 to 2009. However, after general elections that year, it lost the country's leadership to Likud, which recovered its political strength amid a right-wing shift among Israelis.