Official: Israel to Delay Gaza Withdrawal

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) is expected to announce a three-week delay in the Gaza Strip (search) evacuation early next month, immediately after the Jewish Passover (search) holiday ends, a government official said Friday on condition of anonymity.

Outgoing military chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon (search) said he didn't foresee settlers shooting on soldiers sent to evacuate them, and that he expected quiet to prevail in Gaza after the pullout, at least in the short term.

The withdrawal will be one of the items on the agenda of a meeting between Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (search) said. The date of the meeting will be set after the Jewish holiday, Erekat said.

A delay in the evacuation appeared to be a foregone conclusion after Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday backed postponing the start of the forcible evacuation of resistant settlers from late July until Aug. 15.

The late-July timetable would coincide with a three-week mourning period for the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples, and though this is an annual observance, it suddenly became an issue earlier this week.

Sharon, who had fended off attempts to stall the dismantling of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, abruptly consented to consider a postponement, citing the religious sensibilities of the many observant settlers there.

Sharon has denied the government is using the religious rationale to cover for the fact that it is ill-prepared to resettle the 9,000 people who are to be evacuated. Alternative housing and other plans haven't been put in place, only in part because settlers haven't cooperated with government programs to relocate them.

Sharon has also dismissed suggestions that the delay is a first step toward scuttling the pullout, which polls say is supported by a large majority of the Israeli public, but has been opposed fiercely by settlers and their hardline supporters in parliament.

Yaalon, told Israel Army Radio on Friday that he expects quiet to prevail in Gaza after Israel quits the territory, but not necessarily for long.

"I estimate that immediately after disengagement is implemented, all the factors in the Strip will have an interest in preserving quiet so they can show us that every place we leave will remain quiet," said Yaalon, who is to step aside before the withdrawal. "Time will tell if the quiet will last long."

Israeli security forces are also afraid some Israeli opponents of the evacuation will turn violent, and they have announced plans to disarm settlers, many of whom carry army-issued semiautomatic rifles or privately owned pistols, ahead of the withdrawal.

Yaalon said he doesn't foresee settlers opening fire on soldiers assigned to remove them.

"I don't predict any exchange of fire between Israelis, between Jews, but for extreme cases the forces are ready," he said.

A poll for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper published Friday showed 64 percent of settlers saying they wouldn't resist evacuation. Four percent said they would physically oppose the forcible evacuation. Forty-nine percent said they would obey soldiers' orders to quit the area, while 39 percent said they would obey rabbis' orders to defy evacuation orders.

Israeli and Palestinian officials held their first consultations Thursday on coordinating the pullout, which Israel hopes won't take place under Palestinian fire. Mofaz and Mohammed Dahlan, a key Palestinian liaison with the Israeli defense establishment, agreed to set up coordination mechanisms, and meetings on coordinating the withdrawal are to continue at all levels of the security establishment, security officials said Friday on condition of anonymity.

Although the violence that began in September 2000 has tapered off sharply since Sharon and Abbas declared a truce in early February, incidents persist.

In their forthcoming meeting, Sharon and Abbas will also discuss the security situation, Israeli settlement activities, and the implementation of recent understandings between the two sides, Erekat said.

These understandings include the Israeli handover of West Bank towns to Palestinian control, and Israel's promise to release 400 more Palestinian prisoners. These understandings have stalled as Israel has demanded the Palestinians do more to rein in militants. Erekat said the two sides would revive joint committee meetings on prisoners and the handovers.

Israel media reported Friday that two Palestinians jailed in connection with the Feb. 25 suicide bombing at the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv had escaped from a West Bank prison. Five Israelis died in that attack.