"We need to do everything to make the evacuation easier and to allow settlers to overcome the crisis of disengagement. These, effectively, are to be difficult days in the history of the Jewish people," he said on Tuesday.

Sharon was referring to the need to allow the settlers to mourn the destruction of the second Jewish Temple. The day to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in CE 70 falls this year on 14 August.

A cabinet committee is to meet in Jerusalem later on Tuesday to approve the delay in withdrawal, Israel's public radio reported.

The postponement means that the month-long operation should now get under way on 15 August.

Israeli radio said among those on the committee headed by Sharon will be his deputy Shimon Peres, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Ophir Pines.

Last minute

The plan calls for removing 9000 Israelis from all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank.

Bush has told Sharon to stop the
expansion of West Bank colonies

Yonatan Bassi, who heads the administration responsible for compensating and relocating settlers earmarked for evacuation, suggested the delay at a cabinet meeting on Sunday.
 
Vice-Prime Minister Peres said he was caught off guard by the delay. "We knew all of these events beforehand. Why did they wait until the last minute?" he asked on Israel radio.

Petitions rejected

Israeli officials declined to explain why Sharon had waited so long to reconsider, saying only that many factors were considered in setting the original timeline.

Separately, opponents of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip failed on Monday to persuade the Supreme Court to block a law paving the way for a pullout this summer.

A cabinet committee is to meet
on Tuesday to approve the delay

The court rejected eight petitions for an injunction against the evacuation compensation bill that was approved by the Israeli parliament in February, according to a text of the decision released to news media.

The legislation in effect gave the government the go-ahead to proceed with the pullout. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, an expanded panel of 11 judges heard the petitions, which included arguments that uprooting settlers would violate their human and property rights.  

Tenders issued

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

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 forbids the expansion of colonies.

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

Saib Uraiqat,
chief Palestinian negotiator

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.

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

"We regard this launch of a new tender process extremely seriously," chief Palestinian negotiator Saib Uraiqat said. 
  
Vision in danger

"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] Jerusalem," Uraiqat said.

Uraiqat: Disengagement plan is a
substitute for the road map

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

A Peace Now spokesman said the construction was 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."

Against this backdrop of raging controversy, Aljazeera's correspondent in Palestine reported on Monday that two Israeli soldiers were wounded when Palestinian fighters opened fire at them near Tal Zarab in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.

 

In a telephone call, resistance group Brigades of al-Nasir Salah al-Din claimed responsibility for the attack.