Signs of possible recovery reported by Sharon's relatives

The family of Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon told doctors Monday he twitched his eyelids, but hospital officials said it's too early now to say whether the movement is a sign of recovery from a devastating stroke. Israeli police, meanwhile, released three Hamas politicians, including the No. 2 candidate in upcoming Palestinian elections, from custody. A day earlier, police had checked the offices of a Jerusalem charity Israel suspects of being a Hamas front, confiscating computers and documents. The crackdown followed an Israeli decision to ban the group from campaigning in the disputed city.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli riot police came to blows with Jewish settlers protesting plans to evict eight Israeli squatter families from an empty Palestinian market. Police began clearing out dozens of protesters from the settler enclave of Avraham Avinu, dragging some off of rooftops. It was the fourth day of violence in Hebron, where about 500 Jewish settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians.

Sharon has been comatose in Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital since suffering his stroke on January 4, and outside medical experts have said his failure to regain consciousness bodes poorly for his recovery prospects. Sharon underwent a tracheotomy on Sunday to help wean him off a respirator, though his condition remained "critical but stable."

Hadassah Hospital gave a statement Monday saying relatives at Sharon's bedside reported "impression of eyelid movement whose significance is unclear." Hospital officials said they could not confirm radio reports that Sharon had briefly opened his eyes and appeared to recognize people around him.

The Web site of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported that Sharon opened his eyes twice on Monday. On one occasion, after a recording of a grandson's voice was played, the prime minister's eyes teared, he blinked, and then quickly opened his eyes, the site said. But they closed before doctors reached his room, the site added.

Dr. Anthony Rudd, a stroke specialist at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, said eye movement including eye opening would not be "a dramatic breakthrough," though it would be more significant if it's in response to voice commands. Given the length of the coma, "one still needs to be pessimistic," he said.

Sharon's incapacitation jolted Israeli politics less than three months before Israeli elections. Sharon's Kadima Party enjoyed a strong lead in opinion polls at the time of the stroke, and analysts warned the party might disintegrate without its founder and leader. But under Sharon's top deputy, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Kadima has strengthened its lead.

With Sharon unlikely to return, Kadima on Monday chose Olmert to stand in as party leader in the March 28 election. The decision put Olmert in a strong position to be Israel's next prime minister. In one of Olmert's first major tests, he led his Cabinet in a unanimous decision Sunday to let Palestinians vote in Jerusalem in Jan. 25 parliamentary election, resolving a standoff with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel had threatened to ban voting if Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, ran in the election. Under the decision, the Cabinet said a ban on Hamas campaigning in the city would remain in effect.

Enforcing that ban, Israeli police rounded up three Hamas politicians on Sunday and held them overnight for questioning. Police also confiscated computers and documents in an office allegedly used by Hamas in east Jerusalem, said spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld. The Wafada office also was closed.

The candidates, including Mohammed Abu Teir, were released around midday Monday.

Abu Teir, Hamas' No. 2 candidate, called the detentions "unjust." He said he had just come out of prayers, and there were no plans to campaign. He also played down his connections to Hamas.

"They interrogated us on the basis that we are Hamas. We said 'No. we are Reform and Change,"' he said, referring to Hamas' main election slogan.

Hamas' participation has put Israel in a delicate situation. Israel says it wants to encourage Palestinian democracy. But with Hamas poised to make a strong showing in the election, Mideast peace prospects could suffer a blow.

If peace efforts remain bogged down, Israel has signaled that it could push forward with more unilateral moves similar to its pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank last summer.

The Haaretz newspaper reported Monday that Sharon had been considering four alternatives for evacuating parts of the West Bank: leaving isolated settlements, a larger area, 88 percent of the territory and even 92 percent of the territory. The story quoted from an upcoming article written in the New Yorker magazine written by a Haaretz correspondent.

Sharon's spokesman Asaf Shariv said these options had been considered by Israel's National Security Council ahead of the Gaza withdrawal. "I don't know about anything since then that is new," he said.

The Maariv daily reported Monday that Amir Peretz, leader of the opposition Labor Party, is considering calling for a large-scale unilateral pullout from the West Bank. Peretz, who is lagging in the polls, is expected to make a statement at a security conference on Jan. 23.

Peretz spokesman Tom Wegner would not confirm the report, the AP reports.


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