JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he is “positively inclined” toward delaying Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer by three weeks out of respect for a Jewish mourning period that marks the destruction of the biblical temples.

Chelsea Trull
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gestures during a train ride from the southern town of Ashkelon to Jerusalem yesterday. (AP photo)

Sharon’s statement came as government officials confirmed Israel plans to build 50 new homes in a West Bank settlement, a week after President Bush demanded a freeze on such construction.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration “will be seeking clarification from the government of Israel” on both issues.

“Mr. Sharon reiterated his commitment to the ‘road map’ just last week in Crawford (Texas) and his commitment to the president’s two-state vision,” McClellan said.

Sharon told reporters he would discuss the possible delay in the Gaza pullout, which is currently scheduled to begin in late July, at a meeting with top ministers today. Israel TV reported he has decided to delay the evacuation. It did not cite a source.

Talking to reporters earlier, Sharon hinted he would support the delay to allow settlers to observe a three-week Jewish mourning period culminating with Tisha B’Av, the date on the Jewish calendar marking the destruction of the biblical temples. Tisha B’av is Aug. 14 this year.

“We have to take every step to make it easier for the settlers,” Sharon said. “These are difficult days today.”

Until now, Sharon has refused calls to delay the pullout, which calls for removing 9,000 Israelis from all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank. Under the proposed change, the four-week operation would begin Aug. 15 instead of July 25.

Yonatan Bassi, who heads the administration responsible for compensating and relocating settlers slated for evacuation, suggested the delay Sunday at a Cabinet meeting.

Bassi raised the issue after “an internal struggle and talking to rabbis,” said his spokesman, Haim Altman. Bassi, an observant Jew, explained that Jews are not allowed to move to a new home during the Tisha B’Av mourning period.

Israel Vice Premier Shimon Peres said he was caught off guard by the possible delay.

“We knew all of these events beforehand. Why did they wait until the last minute?” he said on Israel Radio.

Military officials involved in preparations for the operation said they opposed any change in the timeline.

The Palestinians have welcomed the planned Israeli pullout from areas they claim for an independent state but want assurances that Sharon will resume peace talks after the withdrawal is complete. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an independent state.

Sharon has said he remains committed to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. He says Israel will retain major West Bank settlements under any final peace agreement.

Yaakov Harel, spokesman for the Israel Lands Authority, said yesterday the agency was seeking bids for construction of the new homes in Elkana, a settlement near the Israel-West Bank boundary. Construction could begin within three months, he said.

The announcement drew U.S. and Palestinian criticism.

“What the president said last week remains our policy, namely under the road map settlement activity must cease,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said the latest West Bank construction plan “is undermining the efforts to realize the vision of a two-state solution.”

“We urge the American administration that while they focus on the Gaza disengagement they should not close their eyes to units being added in the hundreds in the West Bank,” Erekat said.

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