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Israel

Remember Ariel Sharon? Nearly Six Years In A Coma, And Israel Stays Mum

In early 2006, Israel’s then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, suffered a devastating stroke that ended his political career but not, as it turns out, his life. All but forgotten, Sharon is nevertheless alive, thanks to a life support system that costs the fa

Sharon (rt.) in 2003 with U.S. President Bush and Palestinian leader Abbas
Sharon (rt.) in 2003 with U.S. President Bush and Palestinian leader Abbas
Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM -- Consider the following scene: on Sept. 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the marriage ceremony of the daughter of Eli Yishai, the interior minister and chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. While giving a short speech, Netanyahu refers to one of his predecessors, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"May his memory be blessed," says Netanyahu. The audience is silent, looking both stunned and embarrassed. Netanyahu quickly catches his mistake and corrects himself: "May he live long..."

The gaffe was revealing. Most Israelis have forgotten Ariel Sharon, even though he is still alive. After suffering a stroke on Jan. 4, 2006, Sharon plunged into a deep coma. Since then he has been kept on life support at Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv. He is 83 years old. He has a single room that is not located in an intensive care unit. In five years and nine-and-a-half months, he has not given a single sign of waking up, but has he had no major complications either.

"He has a sturdy body, but his case is exceptional," says a doctor. "Many patients would have died of an infection by now. Not him; he's still holding on. This situation may continue for a long time, but he has absolutely no chance of regaining conscience."

The fate of Ariel Sharon has been kept silent for years – word does not get past any doctors, politicians or members of his family. In September 2009, the spokesman for Sheba hospital had only this to say to Le Monde: "The only information I can provide you is that his condition is stable and unchanged. For more information, please contact the members of his family."

"If this were anyone else," says the discreet but well-placed doctor, "they would already have let him die. Sharon is kept alive because it is the will of his family, but the situation is… pathetic."

What may look like aggressive therapy is actually not dictated by religious reasons: Ariel Sharon, like his parents and his sons, Gilad and Omri, is not at all religious. "His family is very attached to him. One might think that it's irrational, but there it is," says the physician.

The high price of survival

Sharon is, however, a very expensive patient. His hospital treatment costs nearly 300,000 euros per year. Thanks to a decision in August, 2010 by the Israeli Parliament, the Sharon family now has some help with the hefty hospital bills – from the state, which agreed to bear half the costs.

Since then, the Israeli press has lost interest in Sharon – though not in his sons, Gilad and Omri Sharon. This past February, police recommended that criminal charges be brought against the two men, who are accused of profiting from bribes and kickbacks to the tune of $4.5 million. Investigators suspect the money came from a man named Martin Schlaff, an Austrian businessman who wanted to build a floating casino in the southern city of Eilat.

Part of this money would actually have been used to pay off the former prime minister's election debt. The case caused a stir in 2001, and forced Sharon and his sons to pay a total of $3 million. Since then, the criminal investigation has stalled, and for good reason: Martin Schlaff does not intend to answer any questions posed by the Israelis, and Ariel Sharon, of course, remains silent.

Read more from Le Monde in French

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Three Dead In Ukraine's First-Ever Attack On Russian Air Bases

Engels-2 airbase in Russia

Alex Hurst, Anna Akage, and Emma Albright

Updated 11:45 p.m.

Separate explosions Monday morning at two different Russian air bases, which have killed at least three and injured eight, have demonstrated that Ukraine has the capacity to use drones to attack targets deep inside Russia.

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Russian state media reports that a fuel tanker exploded early Monday in an airfield near the city of Ryanza, southeast of Moscow, killing three and injuring six people. Another two people are reported to have been injured in another morning explosion at the Engles-2 airbase in the Saratov region, farther to the southeast.

Later Monday, both Russian and Ukrainian government sources confirmed that the attack was carried out by Ukraine, a major escalation in Kyiv's war effort.

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