Speaking to Aljazeera.net on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that "with the exception of minor logistical issues, there are no plans to change the current pullout timetable. It will be completed this summer."

However, when Sharon was asked about reports he would put back by three weeks the withdrawal, currently due to start on 20 July, Sharon said: "We must do everything we can to facilitate the evacuation".
  
The head of the disengagement office, Jonathan Bassi, had also suggested at a cabinet meeting on Sunday that the month-long operation be postponed to allow observant Jews to mourn the destruction of the second Jewish Temple on 14 August.
  
All 8000 Gaza settlers and several hundred living in four illegal Jewish colonies in the northern West Bank are due to be repatriated as part of the prime minister's disengagement plan which is designed to ease pressure for a comprehensive Israeli pullout from the occupied West Bank. 
  
Official positions

Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, on a visit to Paris, confirmed that a delay was on the cards. "I think that, for religious reasons, we can delay by two or three weeks," Peres told French television station LCI.
  
"After all, this is not such a big difference, and towards the end of July or beginning of August, we will be out of Gaza," he added.
  
But Interior Minister Ofer Pines, a member of the centre-left Labour party, warned against any postponement to the pullout. "Such a decision would be a serious mistake which would make the pullout much more difficult," Pines told public radio. 
  
Settlement expansion

In a related development, Israeli authorities issued a tender on Monday inviting bids for the construction of 50 new homes at an illegal settlement in the occupied northern West Bank. 
  

Israeli and foreign activists have
criticised Elkana's expansion

The publication of the tender comes less than a week after US President George Bush told Sharon to conform to the internationally-drafted road map peace plan which expressly forbids expansion of colonies.
  
Yaakov Harel, a spokesman for the Israel Lands Authority, said the tender had been issued for the religious settlement of Elkana, which is currently home to more than 3250 people.
  
The houses will be built by private entrepreneurs on state land, he said. 

Reaction

The move was promptly denounced by the Palestinians as well as the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now as a clear violation of the government's commitments under an internationally drafted peace plan known as the road map.

"We regard this launch of a new tender process extremely seriously," Palestinian chief negotiator Saib Uraiqat said.
  
"While the Israelis talk about leaving 2100 housing units in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, they are at the same time tripling the numbers in other parts of the West Bank and [occupied east] Jersualem. 

"This will destroy President Bush's two-state vision. It now appears the disengagement plan is a substitute for the road map." 

"We regard this launch of a new tender process extremely seriously"

Saib Uraiqat,
Palestinian chief negotiator

A Peace Now spokesman said the construction is clearly part of Sharon's plan to reinforce control of the settlement blocs in the West Bank despite the commitments made by Israel.

Dror Etkes said: "This kind of expansion bolsters extremists on both sides."

Wounded

Aljazeera correspondent in Palestine on Monday reported that two Israeli soldiers were wounded when Palestinian fighters opened fire at them near Tal Zaarab in Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.

 

In a telephone call, the brigades of al-Nasir Salah al-Din, the military wing of the Palestinian popular resistance committees claimed responsibility for the attack.