JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The condition of Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who masterminded the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has deteriorated, doctors said on Sunday.
The further worsening of his health six months after he fell into a coma comes as Israel is once again fighting in its northern neighbour, battling Hizbollah guerrillas there and massing forces on the border.
As defence minister, Sharon -- loved at home as he was loathed in the Arab world -- sent the Israeli army as far as Beirut to root out Palestinian guerrillas.
Doctors at the Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv said the 78-year-old, who fell into a coma after a stroke on Jan. 4, was suffering from an accumulation of fluids in his body and problems with the functioning of his kidneys.
"Over the past two days the doctors have identified a deterioration in the kidney function ... and changes in brain tissue," the hospital said in a statement.
"The doctors are continuing tests in order to diagnose the changes which have taken place in Sharon's body and to administer the appropriate treatment."
Sharon's family was with him, the hospital said.
However, a family friend said that while Sharon's condition was bad, it was not irreversible and said that doctors had pointedly not said that his life was threatened.
"This was kind of expected. The situation is under control," said the friend, who asked not to be identified.
After his stroke, Sharon underwent several brain operations but has never regained consciousness. In May, he was moved from a Jerusalem hospital to Tal Hashomer, a long-term care facility.
His deputy Ehud Olmert took over as interim leader when Sharon fell ill.
Olmert formally assumed office after the Kadima party that Sharon founded won the most seats in elections earlier this year and established a governing coalition.
Olmert authorised air raids on Beirut and other parts of Lebanon following the capture of two Israeli soldiers by guerrillas on July 12. The 12-day war has cost 368 lives in Lebanon and Hizbollah rockets have killed 37 Israelis.
His tough response reminded many Israelis of former general Sharon, who drew Arab enmity for the 1982 invasion of Lebanon during which Christian militia allies massacred Palestinians in refugee camps. The occupation of south Lebanon only ended in 2000.
Sharon was a key figure in shaping the Middle East for decades. Regarded as an archetypal hawk, he was a champion of the settler movement that involved building Jewish communities on occupied Palestinian land.
He drew further Arab ire for his crushing response to the Palestinian uprising that erupted after he visited a sensitive Jerusalem shrine in 2000.
First elected prime minister in 2001, Sharon made an about-face in his second term, pulling Israeli settlers and soldiers out of the occupied Gaza Strip last year and hinting at a similar move to consolidate settlements in the West Bank.
The dramatic move, the first time Israel had dismantled settlements on land that Palestinians want for a state, stirred a far-right revolt in his Likud party, leading to the formation of Kadima.
Opinion polls had shown that Sharon, as head of Kadima, was the clear favourite to win the general election in March.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Emma Thomasson in Jerusalem)
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