Ariel Sharon, the tough army general turned premier who shocked his hawkish supporters by pulling Israel out of Gaza in 2005, is still lying unconscious in a hospital bed, friends said Sunday on the fourth anniversary of the massive stroke that put him in a coma.
Sharon, 81, led Israel from 2001 until the January 2006 stroke that left him comatose.
Dov Weisglass, a close friend of Sharon and his former spokesman, told The Associated Press on Sunday that Sharon's vital signs are good but it was not clear if he would ever regain consciousness. Medical experts have said that is most unlikely.
Sharon was a daring army officer who reached the rank of major general In the 1970s, sometimes disobeying orders from his superiors. After leaving the army, Sharon turned to politics, becoming a hawkish lawmaker in the Likud Party and an enthusiastic supporter of the movement to settle the West Bank with Israelis.
He served in several Cabinet posts, including defense minister. He was the architect of Israel's disastrous war in Lebanon, which began in 1982.
The next year he was forced to resign by an Israeli commission of inquiry that found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of around 800 Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps by Lebanese Christian militiamen.
Resurrecting his political career, he was elected Israel's prime minister in 2001.
Turning his back on his uncompromising ideology in 2005, Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, ending Israel's 38-year occupation of the territory and daily clashes between settlers and soldiers with Palestinian militants. Outraged hawkish backers abandoned him, and Sharon created a new centrist party, Kadima, to run in March 2006 elections.
Riding a wave of popularity, Sharon appeared to be well on his way to re-election when he suffered a stroke on Jan. 4, 2006.
Doctors fought to keep him alive after severe hemorrhaging that caused significant brain damage, performing a number of desperate operations to stop the bleeding but leaving him in a vegetative state. Several months later, he was moved to a long-term care facility outside Tel Aviv.
Raanan Gissin, another close friend of Sharon and former spokesman, told the AP that Sharon is not connected to a respirator but sometimes needs an oxygen mask at night. "There is still no change physiologically. His body functions but he has still not regained consciousness," Gissin said. "Who knows if he can hear or not."
Gissin said he visits Sharon often, as does Sharon's family and former staff, including a driver. "Our hope is that he will regain consciousness one day," he said. But there are few cases of patients emerging from deep comas after such a long time.