JERUSALEM -- Israel on Monday delayed the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip until mid-August -- a month later than planned -- raising doubts about the country's readiness for the pullout and even its resolve to carry it out.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told television interviewers he was taking into account a request from Israel's chief rabbis to put off the withdrawal until after a three-week period in which Jews mourn the destruction of the biblical temples in Jerusalem, ending with a one-day fast that falls this year on Aug. 14. The pullout had been expected to start around July 20.
However, many Jewish authorities say there is no religious prohibition from evacuating during the three-week period, and at most it would be a gesture to the settlers, most of whom are Orthodox Jews.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who opposes the withdrawal, indicated it could not take place if the militant Hamas wins Palestinian parliamentary elections set for July 17. The Islamic group, which is fielding candidates for the first time, is expected to make a strong showing.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat complained the Israelis are going it alone.
"We want to coordinate but we find ourselves waiting for the next Israeli dictate, the next unilateral decision," he said.
In an interview with Israel television in advance of the Israeli Independence Day holiday this week, Sharon said the pullout would start between Aug. 15 and 17.
"The evacuation will be carried out, giving consideration to the mourning period," he said.
Many have noted that the Jewish calendar was well known when the original timetable was set. That has led some to question whether the government is prepared to forcibly evacuate many of the 8,500 Gaza settlers and another 500 from the West Bank. Alternate housing has not been arranged.
The government insists it is ready.
Skeptics warn any delay could scuttle the withdrawal altogether, giving opponents more time to organize and allowing time for developments that could interfere -- such as a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli violence.
Even Vice Premier Shimon Peres, one of the strongest supporters of the pullout, said in an interview published Monday that the dispute over whether to leave Gaza houses standing could torpedo the exit.
Peres told The Jerusalem Post if Israel decides to tear down the houses, it would be responsible for removing the rubble. That could add weeks to the timetable and cost tens of millions of dollars.
"This alone can spoil it," he said.
Peres, leader of the moderate Labor Party, favors turning the abandoned buildings over to the Palestinians, while hard-liners in Sharon's Likud Party, led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, want to destroy the settlements so that the Palestinians will not be able to celebrate their "liberation."
The Palestinians have said they have no preference, as long as Israel completes its withdrawal.
In a television interview, Sharon said no decision has been made.
"The only situation where we do not destroy them is if there is full coordination with the Palestinians, and that coordination is not yet complete," he said.
Opponents of the pullout are convinced they can still stop it, and the delay is likely to boost that sentiment. Settlers plan to stream to Gaza to reinforce the resistance, blocking roads around the territory to hamper security forces. Security officials have warned that extremists among the settlers might open fire on police and soldiers.
Political opponents are still looking for ways to torpedo the evacuation, though the Cabinet and parliament have repeatedly voted approval.
Shalom insisted Hamas cannot run in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, set for July 17, because it refuses to disarm. Hamas has threatened to abandon a three-month cease-fire unless Israel releases Palestinian prisoners as promised.
After a meeting with Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, Shalom asked rhetorically: "Would there be any way to negotiate peace when their main goal is the destruction of Israel? Would there be any way to go ahead with disengagement?" he asked.
Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in the July parliamentary elections. The group won nearly a third of the West Bank and Gaza towns up for grabs in local elections on Thursday, establishing itself as a significant political force on the Palestinian streets.
According to the original timetable, the pullout was to begin in the week after the Palestinian election. The new pullout date would give Israeli opponents three more weeks to argue against handing Gaza over to a Palestinian government with a significant Hamas component.