Sharon may postpone Gaza withdrawal

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Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, is for the first time considering a three-week delay to his plan to disengage from Gaza in a move designed to minimise conflict with religious settlers among the 8,000 facing evacuation.

Yonatan Bassi, appointed by Mr Sharon to head the agency responsible for compensating and relocating the Jewish settlers, has urged the government to postpone the date by which compulsory evacuation would start, from July to mid-August.

After what he described as "an internal struggle and talking to rabbis", Mr Bassi is suggesting that the resistance to the planned evacuation may be lessened if it takes place after Tisha B'Av, the day in the Jewish calendar which marks the destruction of the two biblical temples. The date, which is preceded for observant Jews by a three- week mourning period, falls on 14 August this year.

The Prime Minister told reporters yesterday that he would discuss the proposal with senior ministers today and said: "We have to take every step to make it easier for the settlers." Mr Sharon, who during his visit to Washington last week compared the atmosphere in Israel to the "eve of a civil war", added: "These are difficult days today."

The putative move, designed to help pacify some settler opponents of the plan, was under consideration as the Israel Land Authority confirmed plans to build another 50 homes in a West Bank settlement in apparent defiance of President George Bush's strictures against settlement expansion last week. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the US would be seeking clarification from the Israeli government. The senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, also denounced the move, planned for the settlement of Elkana near Qalkilya. Mr McClellan pointed out that the road map to peace "has obligations for both parties. Israel should not be expanding settlements. And the Palestinian leaders need to act to dismantle terrorist organisations."Mr Sharon has previously rejected a request from the military for more time to plan the logistics of dismantling all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. But he appears more favourably inclined to the view of Mr Bassi, himself an observant Jew, that it would be inappropriate to evacuate settlers during the mourning period.

Although the prominent settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein claimed the army had told Mr Sharon months ago that the timeline was problematic, especially for the Gaza settlers, he depicted himself as unimpressed by the prospect of a delay. "Maybe Tisha B'Av is appropriate," Mr Wallerstein told Army Radio: "If you want to bring destruction on the nation of Israel maybe it is appropriate to do it on a date known for destruction. The date doesn't matter to us. Our goal is to prevent the withdrawal."

The move could also have an impact on internal debate within the Palestinian Authority over whether to delay the legislative council elections, planned for 17 July. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said the elections will take place on time, but his deputy, Nabil Sha'ath, suggested at the weekend that they might be delayed.

In a fresh strain on the ceasefire called by both sides in February, the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for shooting and wounding an Israeli soldier and civilian close to Gaza's border with Egypt yesterday and said it was in retaliation for the shooting dead of three unarmed teenage boys by Israeli troops close to the border fence last week.

Haaretz reported that a military investigation had already disclosed that the soldiers had "shot to kill" the boys - who locals said had been playing football - and not as previously said, aimed at their legs to wound them. The newspaper quoted a military source as saying "there was no justification" for the soldiers behaving as though the boys had been an "armed cell". The army said the investigation was still going on.