JERUSALEM - Israel will delay its evacuation of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip until mid-August, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday.
Sharon's government had for some time been strongly hinting that it would delay the start of the pullout by about three weeks in deference to a Jewish religious commemoration. Most of the settlers who will be evacuated are observant Jews.
The withdrawal was to have begun July 25, but that would have meant that the 21 settlements of Gaza, together with four smaller ones in the northern West Bank, would be uprooted during a mourning period ending with the fast day of Tisha B'Av. It commemorates the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples in Jerusalem and is traditionally associated with a host of other historical misfortunes to befall the Jews.
Sharon's government apparently decided that uprooting communities during a religious observance whose chief themes are lamentation, loss and exile would be too great an affront to the already volatile sensibilities of the settlers.
"The evacuation will be carried out with consideration to the mourning period," Sharon told Israeli television. That was interpreted to mean the pullout could start on or after Aug. 15, but the prime minister refused to be more specific.
"Aug. 15, or 17, or 16 - I don't want to commit myself to an exact date," he said.
Although the announcement of a delay had been expected for weeks, its timing, just in advance of a pair of national holidays, appeared to be aimed at quelling any further debate on the matter.
Israelis begin solemn observances of Memorial Day tonight. The next evening marks the much more festive start of Independence Day. Israeli national days, like Jewish holidays, are observed from dusk to dusk.
Reflecting high-level anxiety that the Gaza pullout will be marked by civil unrest, divisiveness and perhaps a significant level of violence, Israeli authorities took the unusual step of placing a prominent Jewish militant in "administrative detention," jailing him without charges or a trial.
Authorities said yesterday that the intention was to hold Neria Ofan, 34, a West Bank settler, until the end of September, by which time the withdrawal is expected to be complete. Ofan was detained by Israeli troops Sunday at a West Bank roadblock.
Israeli media reported yesterday that Ofan was caught with weapons in his possession and was suspected of involvement in right-wing extremist activities. The reports also cited security sources as saying that dozens of known militants might be jailed in advance of the Gaza withdrawal.
Although Israel has commonly employed the practice of administrative detention against Palestinians, it is almost never invoked against Israeli citizens. Some legal commentators cautioned that its use could prove a slippery slope.
"I believe that a democracy shouldn't use this tool ... except in very extreme cases," Israel's pre-eminent legal commentator, Moshe Negby, told Israel Radio. "There's definitely a feeling here that the courts are a rubber-stamp, to a great extent."
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