Ariel Sharon showed "small movement" in his right hand and leg and began to breathe on his own yesterday as doctors started reducing his intake of coma-inducing drugs.
But it may be several days before the physicians are able fully to assess the impact of the damage to his brain and his cognitive functions or the extent of paralysis the 77-year-old Israeli Prime Minister may have suffered on his left side.
Felix Umansky, the head of the neurosurgical team which has cared for Mr Sharon since he suffered a brain haemorrhage last Wednesday, said the movement was a "clear reaction to pain and not a reflex". He added: "This - together with a slight elevation of his blood pressure as a reaction to the pain - are signs of some activity of his brain."
But there are still fears that the Prime Minister has suffered serious brain damage and although he has started to breathe of his own accord, Mr Sharon remains connected to a respirator. He has not opened his eyes, the doctors indicated. The Attorney General Menachem Mazuz would have to pronounce Mr Sharon formally incapacitated after taking medical advice before a new Prime Minister - likely to be Ehud Olmert, the current acting Prime Minister - could be elected by ministers in his place.
The medical developments came as prospects for successful Palestinian parliamentary elections - scheduled for 25 January - hung in the balance. The government said it would allow campaigning in east Jerusalem but in terms geared to exclude Hamas.
Gideon Ezra, the Public Security Minister declared: "All those who want to campaign will submit requests in advance to the Jerusalem police, and only those who don't represent extremist groups will receive permission." But the government has yet to decide on whether Palestinians will be allowed to vote in east Jerusalem, as they were in 1996. This is a more crucial issue since both Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Fatah activist who is top of the faction's candidates' list, have both said the elections should be postponed if such voting is not permitted.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday that no decision had been taken on this. But Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Information Minister, said the US had told the Palestinian Authority that east Jerusalem residents will be able to vote in the city, despite Israeli misgivings. The White House has said it wants the elections to go ahead - and with voting taking place in east Jerusalem.
Mr Shaath said: "We have not received anything yet from the Israelis to confirm that, but we will go on this assurance." Unlike the international community which sees east Jerusalem as occupied territory, Israel regards itself as the sovereign power and argues that it only granted voting there in 1996 and in 2005 to boost the post office service, where the polls were based. It has said it sees no reason to allow it if Hamas is participating in this election.
Amid continued outbreaks of violence between sections of a Fatah deeply divided by "old guard" and "new guard", Nasser Yusef, the Palestinian Interior Minister, has reportedly warned his cabinet colleagues that he cannot guarantee the security of polling stations. Hamas said the elections should go ahead whether or not voting is allowed in east Jerusalem, and the faction professed to be unperturbed by Israel's plan to exclude it from permission to campaign. A spokesman said: "We will carry out our electioneering campaign whether the occupation agrees or not. We have the means and the ways to do so despite the Israeli decision."Reuse content