Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to announce a three-week delay in the planned evacuation of the Gaza Strip early next month, to immediately after the Jewish Passover holiday ends, a government official said Friday.
Sharon, who had fended off attempts to stall the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, said in recent days he would consider a brief postponement, ostensibly because of a Jewish mourning period marking the destruction of the biblical temples.
However, politicians and analysts speculated the delay was proposed because the government was far behind schedule in its efforts to evacuate and relocate the 9,000 settlers in the affected communities.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday agreed with the plan to push back the evacuation from late July until Aug. 15.
Sharon spokesman Asaf Shariv said Friday that the premier was expected to announce the delay after the week-long Passover holiday, which began last night.
Though polls show most Israelis support the pullout, many settlers remain strongly opposed.
Military chief Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon said Friday he doesn't foresee settlers opening fire on soldiers trying to remove them.
A poll published Friday in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper showed 64 percent of settlers saying they wouldn't resist evacuation and 4 percent saying they would physically oppose it. It also showed 49 percent saying they would obey soldiers' orders to quit the area, while 39 percent said they would obey rabbis' orders to defy evacuation orders. The poll of 506 people had a 4.5 percent margin of error.
Also Friday, Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke by telephone and agreed to meet at an unspecified date in the future "in order to advance the different issues," Sharon's office said in a statement.
Abbas initiated the call to wish Sharon a happy Passover, the statement said.
The two leaders last met in February at a Mideast summit at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and were expected to meet soon to coordinate Israel's planned pullout from Gaza this summer as well as the overall security situation.
Palestinian officials said Friday that Abbas was pushing ahead with plans to reform his unwieldy, and often competing, security services and had chosen three people to head a consolidated security force.
Abbas also authorized the forced retirement of two top security officials: Moussa Arafat, the cousin of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Amin al-Hindi, the head of general intelligence in the Palestinian territories, the officials said, requesting anonymity to allow Abbas to make the formal announcement today.
Abbas, who was elected Palestinian leader in January, has come under pressure at home and from Israel and the US to consolidate his more than a dozen security services -- many of which operate as independent militias -- and impose law and order in Palestinian towns.