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Sharon announces delay in Gaza settler pullback

JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed Monday to delay the evacuation of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip until at least mid-August, for what he said were religious reasons.

Senior rabbis as well as Israeli government and military officials have urged Sharon for weeks to postpone the evacuation from July 25. That date conflicted with an annual mourning period marking the destruction of the Jewish Temples in 586 B.C. and A.D. 70.

But some regional commentators have suggested the delay also would give the government more time to prepare for the pullback of some 9,000 Gaza and 500 West Bank settlers. To date, few of the settlers have agreed to leave willingly.

Sharon announced the delay in a television interview Monday, saying the withdrawal would occur sometime after the 9th of Av, the date in the Jewish calendar set aside to commemorate the destructions of the temples. That date corresponds this year to Aug. 14, but Sharon told Israel Channel One he didn't want to commit to a specific date.

Palestinian officials said they weren't surprised by the decision, charging that Israel had backpedaled on a number of promises since Sharon met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik in February, including the handover of five West Bank cities and releases of Palestinian prisoners. To date, only two cities have been returned to Palestinian control and only 500 of more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have been released.

Palestinian Labor Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh said he suspected Sharon's decision to postpone dismantling the settlements was aimed at gauging the outcome of the Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled for July 17.

The Islamic militant faction Hamas is widely expected to fare well in those polls, if it runs. Israel opposes Hamas' participation in Palestinian elections as long as the group carries weapons and embraces a doctrine calling for the destruction of the Jewish nation.

"We have yet to believe Israel will really withdraw from Gaza," Abu Libdeh said. "We should take seriously the comment of Silvan Shalom that if Hamas wins the election in Gaza they will cancel the so-called withdrawal plan."

He was referring to comments earlier Monday by Israel's foreign minister, in which Shalom said he opposed removing settlers and soldiers so that Hamas could create a "Hamas-stan."

Gaza settlers also reacted coolly to the delay. "We see the government is in a panic. They are ashamed of what they (are) doing," said a settler spokeswoman, Rachel Sapperstein.


(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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