Sharon Postpones Gaza Withdrawal

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that Israel will delay its evacuation of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank until mid-August.

Sharon told Israel television the evacuation of settlers from the 21 Gaza settlements would be delayed until after a religious mourning period, which ends Aug. 14. Israeli officials have said for weeks that a delay was likely.

"The evacuation will be carried out, giving consideration to the mourning period," Sharon said. The original date to start the pullout was July 25.

Also Monday, Palestinian militants and police exchanged gunfire in two West Bank, defying Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' (search) attempts to crack down on lawlessness and put peacemaking with Israel on a more solid footing.

In Jenin (search), a militant stronghold, dozens of Palestinian gunmen and police exchanged fire for a second straight day Monday.

In Tulkarem (search), near the Israeli frontier, a gang of suspected car thieves and arms dealers fired on the local police station before dawn, security officials said. Hundreds of police were hunting down the head of the gang to arrest him.

In Jenin, Mohammed Abu Arraj (search), the local leader of a faction with ties to Abbas' Fatah movement, said police shot him in the leg without provocation as he drove.

"They shot me and I didn't do anything," he said. "They tried to kill me."

Police denied the allegation. But a dozen gunmen, responding to Abu Arraj's claims, opened fire on police in the streets, witnesses said. Abu Arraj and his men had a shootout with police Sunday over his refusal to disarm before entering the local courthouse.

In Monday's incident, hundreds of residents rushed into the streets to try to separate the two sides. Most shots were fired in the air, and hospital officials said there were no injuries.

Calm was restored after police reinforcements rushed to the scene and ordered people to leave. Militant leaders later met with Jenin's governor in an effort to defuse the situation.

Abu Arraj said the militants demanded the resignations of Jenin's top security commander and its police chief.

"If they don't leave, their heads will be wanted by us," he said.

Jenin's governor, Kadoura Musa, said he is not responsible for personnel decisions in the security forces.

"This is not in my hands. It's with the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Despite the violence, Palestinian officials said they have made progress in their plan to get militants off the streets without confrontations by co-opting some 200 gunmen into their security forces.

A Palestinian official said more than 200 gunmen once wanted by Israel have joined the Palestinian security forces. Legislator Abdel Fattah Hemayel, who is in charge of finding jobs for the West Bank fugitives, said the new recruits are all in the towns of Jericho and Tulkarem, handed to Palestinian control in March.

In Tulkarem, local security chiefs said they were mobilizing 400 officers, including about 150 former militants, to arrest the leader of a gang of car thieves and arms dealers. Before dawn Monday, the criminals had shot up the local police station.

The 150 new recruits formerly belonged to a militant faction allied with Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, and have joined his security forces since Israel turned over control of Tulkarem to the Palestinians in March.

The Palestinian security forces were severely weakened in more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, allowing gunmen to control many areas of the West Bank. Since reaching a Feb. 8 cease-fire with Israel, Abbas has been trying to co-opt gunmen by offering them jobs and guaranteeing their safety.

Israeli officials said the plan to absorb the gunmen into the security forces is not enough. They said the Palestinians must keep a promise to confiscate weapons. Hemayel said the gunmen's weapons are now under control of their commanders, and that they can no longer use them at will.

While Palestinian police struggled to curb violence in their midst, Israel was trying to rein in its own extremists.

Israel took the unusual step of employing a practice known as administrative detention to arrest a Jewish extremist. The detentions without charge or trial are frequently used against Palestinians considered security threats but rarely used against Israelis.

But with Jewish extremists planning to resist this summer's planned withdrawal from Palestinian areas, authorities have considered using the detentions to contain expected violence.

On Sunday, police arrested Neria Ofan (search), a 34-year-old West Bank settler, at an army roadblock, and said they plan to hold him until the end of September. Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ofan was suspected of "involvement in terror."

Police found weapons and a sniper scope in his possession, security officials said. Ofan, who has been questioned by police in the past but never charged, was a sharpshooter in the army's undercover unit during his regular army service, they added.

Ofan's wife, Naomi, told Israel Army Radio Monday the detention was part of a campaign to muzzle opponents. A top aide to Sharon, Ilan Cohen, denied the allegation.