JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- On the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, where Israelis of all ages usually stroll and relax and shop, people yesterday found it difficult to focus on anything other than the health of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"All the people of Israel don't sleep at night," said Yehudit Enoshi, 58, an actress from the coastal city of Netanya.
One of Sharon's greatest contributions to the country was his ability to make Israelis feel safe even during times of uncertainty, she said. But Israelis now are grappling with the fact that it would take a miracle for him to recover from the serious stroke he suffered Wednesday.
"We felt naked, like orphans, and a bit insecure."
Sharon, 77, underwent a five-hour emergency operation yesterday - his third - at Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospital as doctors sought to stop new bleeding in his brain. Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the hospital's director general, said Sharon was in serious condition and had been returned to intensive care, where he remained in a medically induced coma. Doctors don't plan to try to bring him out of the coma until tomorrow at the earliest.
Mor-Yosef said that brain scans after yesterday's surgery found "significant improvement" compared with previous scans, but the damage caused by the cerebral bleeding is not yet known.
Israelis focused on television and radio reports from the hospital and speculation about his slim chance for recovery. Between the updates, there was somber music, and television stations broadcast old clips of Sharon at war, on his farm and as prime minister. The daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth had on its front page a simple, black bordered headline that captured the nation's mood: "Praying."
On the Ben Yehuda mall, Israelis already spoke of Sharon in the past tense, recognizing that whatever the state of his health, his active role in Israel politics was over.
"He was the great figure in Israeli society. He dedicated his life to this country," said Itzhak Morning, 23, an Israeli soldier, sitting under a tree with his rifle by his side. "I think everyone should say a little prayer for him."
Enoshi, the actress, said she has been praying for Sharon since Wednesday, even though she remained critical of many of his policies. As a member of the Likud Party, Enoshi said she felt betrayed by Sharon's decision to evacuate settlements from the Gaza Strip; she was further estranged when he abandoned Likud to start his own centrist political movement.
Still, when news spread of Sharon's stroke, she lit a candle and asked for God's help.
"I said, 'God, this is not the way I want Sharon to stop being a politician,'" she recalled. "He should be healthy, standing strong, and the people on the ballot will decide where Sharon should be. Take him back to his farm. Let him be with the children, grandchildren and the sheep, but not in this way."
Other Israelis expressed a deep devotion to Sharon, overlooking or choosing to forget controversial parts of his career, from the divisive venture into Lebanon to current allegations of corruption that swirl around him. Some political commentators yesterday took note of how the man known as "the bulldozer," not only for his girth but also his almost brutish manner with his political enemies, was being embraced by the nation.
"The man, who for most of his life projected hostility, is ending his long and influential public career enveloped by the empathy and concern of the entire country," wrote Uzi Benziman in yesterday's Haaretz.
One of Sharon's loyal followers is Susana Washovsky, 63, who owns a luggage shop on Ben Yehuda Street with her husband. Like many merchants there, she recalled the repeated bombings of coffee shops and restaurants in the shopping district.
When Sharon took office in 2001, the situation appeared grim. Many parents kept their teenage children at home at night, afraid they would be in danger going to bars and nightspots. People worried about riding on buses and stopping for coffee. Tourists disappeared. Shopping areas such as Ben Yehuda mall were deserted.
Sharon entered office promising to usher in a new era of peace and stability. And in the eyes of many Israelis, he delivered.
Looking out the front window of her store, Washovsky pointed to the busy street scene as evidence of Sharon's work. Hawkers sold flowers and silver jewelry. A man squeezed an accordion. Mothers pushed strollers from shop to shop. Children licked ice cream cones.
"Look at the quantity of people," she said. "I hope someone will come with the same courage as him."
Other Israelis say Sharon's decision to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip - not his military campaign against Palestinian militants - was his most important act as prime minister. "When Sharon started to be prime minister, he changed his view of life," says Avi Brody, 50, a flower merchant. "He was the leader of the settlers, and he took them out of Gaza by himself."
Brody said his own political views evolved with Sharon. Brody, once a supporter of settlements himself, said that Sharon persuaded him that giving them up offered the country the best opportunity for peace with the Palestinians.
"Too many people have been killed. Too many people have suffered. Someone has to put an end to it," he said.
Many Israelis hoped that Sharon was that person. But even his admirers acknowledged yesterday that they were beginning to ponder what their country would be like without Sharon watching over them.
"Deep in your heart, you feel a hopeless feeling," Washovsky said. "He is a great man. He was a great man."