JERUSALEM - Israel's defense minister urged yesterday that this summer's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip be delayed by three weeks in deference to a solemn Jewish religious commemoration.
The recommendation by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz all but guaranteed a postponement of Israel's pullout of settlers and soldiers from the Mediterranean enclave, pushing the start to mid-August.
The move to delay the evacuation of 21 settlements in Gaza and four smaller ones in the northern West Bank demonstrated the continuing political clout of observant Jews, who are disproportionately represented among the settlers who are to be uprooted.
It also underscored anxiety on the part of the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over potentially fratricidal passions that could be unleashed by the plan to evacuate settlers from land they regard as their biblical birthright. The withdrawal would represent the first time Israel has fully relinquished war-seized land now claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
Although the Gaza pullout plan has the support of a solid majority of the Israeli public, it is vehemently opposed by the country's minority of ultra-religious Jews. The settlers and their supporters were unable to block the withdrawal in the Knesset, or parliament, but have embarked on a campaign of street protests and angry rhetoric directed at senior government figures.
Sharon had put the question of a delay to senior military commanders this week, while signaling that he was ready to go along with a postponement.
Mofaz's recommendation represented a turnabout by the military establishment. Army commanders had previously maintained that putting off an operation of this scale by three weeks would seriously disrupt months of planning.
The previous date would have coincided with the start of a traditional mourning period for the destruction of Jewish temples in ancient times.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.