News that Sharon had suffered a mild stroke was a cause for concern in some circles and a source of celebration in others. Throughout the Palestinian territories, it was clear that people's thoughts were with the Israeli prime minister.

Sharon holds a special place in the collective Palestinian consciousness. He is widely reviled for his connection to a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by an Israeli-allied militia and distrusted because of Israel's policies against Palestinian resistance groups during the past five years of the uprising.

But this year, Sharon led Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, marking the first time an Israeli leader has returned land to the Palestinians. With Sharon talking of resuming peace talks after March elections, many Palestinians also understand that their future could be intertwined with his.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, swiftly sent a get-well message, and Saeb Erikat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, called a Sharon aide to wish the premier a speedy recovery.

"We're watching the situation very, very closely," Erikat said.

He said it was inappropriate to discuss what effect Sharon's health could have on the peace process but conceded it was on people's minds.

Street views

But Naim Zarloul, a clerk in a clothing shop in the Balata refugee camp in the northern West Bank, said it was clear that Sharon offers the best chance for the Palestinians to strike a peace agreement with Israel.

"Sharon is the only one who could make peace with the Palestinians"

Naim Zarloul,
clothing shop clerk

"Sharon is the only one who could make peace with the Palestinians. Sharon started it, and if he doesn't finish, it will take a long time before a strong Israeli leader will come and make peace," he said.

Zarloul's feelings were not shared by everyone. Abu Aziz, a leader with the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Balata, said he was "ready to throw a party and fire in the air" if Sharon dies. "Sharon is a murderer... He murdered many Palestinians, and his time has come."

Night raids

In the Gaza Strip, streets were buzzing with discussion about Sharon, though a night of Israeli air raids left many feeling that nothing would change even if Sharon were to leave office.

Still, the hostility towards Sharon seemed especially strong in the impoverished coastal strip.

Nahed Assi, a 35-year-old teacher in Gaza City, said: "Sharon is a devil, and he has done a lot of bad things against our people and against mankind.

"I am not happy that he's sick. I would prefer that he be punished by God for all the crimes he has committed."

Elsewhere in Gaza, dozens of armed men from the Popular Resistance Committees, a small Palestinian resistance group, fired guns in the air late on Sunday after hearing word of Sharon's illness. The armed men shouted: "Sharon is dead" and handed out pastries to motorists in Gaza City in celebration of the news.