Israeli Cabinet Squabbles Over Gaza Pullout

Israel must withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search), no matter how well Islamic militants do in Palestinian parliamentary elections a month before the pullout, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday.

Mofaz spoke in response to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's suggestion that Israel consider calling off the pullout if Hamas militants win the July 17 vote.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) confirmed Monday the withdrawal would be delayed by three weeks until mid-August.

On Tuesday, he reiterated that Israel would hold on to major West Bank (search) settlement blocs, where most of the 240,000 Jewish settlers live.

"Settlement blocs will be part of the state of Israel and contiguous with Israel," Sharon said.

Sharon embarked upon the unilateral withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from Gaza and four small northern West Bank settlements after concluding it was not in Israel's interests to retain an enclave of 8,500 Jews among 1.3 million Palestinians.

He has pushed ahead with it despite fierce opposition from settlers and their right-wing supporters in parliament, and the threat of intensified violence from Gaza militants after Israel withdraws.

Mofaz told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday that "the disengagement will not be canceled" even if Hamas, building on gains in recent local elections, captures a large chunk of the vote in parliamentary balloting.

"The disengagement is a complex, historic and heartbreaking move that puts the Israeli government to a very difficult test, but is vital to its future," Mofaz said. "I think we must carry out the disengagement under any circumstances."

Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and is sworn to Israel's destruction, is expected to make a strong showing in its first run for the Palestinian parliament, but is not expected to rout the ruling Fatah party. It is honoring a de facto truce with Israel but has rejected calls by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) to disarm after the vote.

Shalom, who has been lukewarm in his support of the Gaza withdrawal, questioned whether Israel could evacuate Gaza if Hamas were to win the parliamentary election.

"Would there be any way to negotiate peace when their main goal is the destruction of Israel?" he asked. "Would there be any way to go ahead with disengagement?"

Speaking at the International Bible Quiz (search) in Jerusalem, Sharon said that although the settlement enterprise is being rolled back in Gaza, it has allowed Israel to fulfill "a very significant part of its dream."

"Not the entire dream, but a very important part of this dream, which is significant both historically and in terms of security — this part of our dream is in our hands and will remain in our hands," he said.

Major settlement blocs, such as Maaleh Adumim (search) outside Jerusalem, and Ariel, deep inside the West Bank, will remain part of Israel, forming a territorial link, he said.

Sharon has said the pullout plan would help Israel maintain control over large blocs of West Bank settlements. He has U.S. support on this matter, with President Bush reiterating last month that Israel will hold on to large West Bank settlement blocs under a final peace accord.

The Palestinians reject this policy, saying it crushes their hopes for a viable, contiguous state.

In Moscow on Monday, international peace negotiators for the Mideast issued a statement affirming that "a new Palestinian state must be truly viable, with contiguity in the West Bank.

"A state of scattered territories will not work and emphasizes that no party should take unilateral actions that prejudge final status talks," the statement said.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, is compiling rules of conduct for troops who are to evacuate settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank, including stringent open-fire rules.

Troops are to be ordered to do everything possible to disable protesters firing on soldiers. By contrast, soldiers are authorized to shoot to kill when Palestinians open fire on Israeli troops.

Rules also forbid soldiers from resting on settlers' furniture, rifling through their personal effects, watching their television, or using their phones, the newspaper said. Soldiers will be told not to play ball games in settlers' yards or sports facilities, either.

They will, however, be allowed to break down locked doors and to unchain resisters who attach themselves to objects.

On Monday, Sharon told TV interviewers that the evacuation of the resistant settlers would start between Aug. 15 and Aug. 17.

Sharon pinned the delay on religious sensitivities: The original timetable would have coincided with a three-week period in which observant Jews mourn the destruction of the biblical temples in Jerusalem.

Many Jewish authorities have ruled that there is no religious prohibition for carrying out the evacuation during this period, so critics say Sharon is using the religious argument because the government is unprepared for the formidable task of relocating some 9,000 settlers. The government insists it is ready.