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Israel Decides on Three-week Pullout Delay

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz agreed Thursday to a three-week delay for the Gaza pullout plan, originally set for July 20.

The postponement to Aug. 15 is aimed at avoiding clashing with a traditional Jewish mourning period which ends on Aug. 14.

Mofaz gave the green light to the delay, proposed by Disengagement Administration head Yonatan Bassi, at a meeting with top military and police officials, security officials said.

Mofaz's recommendation will then go to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is set to announce the delay after security chiefs endorse it.

Earlier, Sharon denied that Israel will further withdraw from the West Bank after the scheduled pullout plan this summer.

The prime minister denied reports that he might carry out a further evacuation from the West Bank where a majority of Jewish settlers are living.

"I want to deny the reports stating that following the first disengagement plan, Israel intends to implement an additional disengagement in the West Bank," Sharon told his cabinet.

"This subject was not even mentioned in my visit to the United States," said Sharon, who held talks with US President George W. Bush earlier this month in Washington.

Also on Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres met in Jerusalem to coordinate ways to implement the Gaza pullout plan.
The meeting lasted about two hours, Palestinian officials said, adding that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Minister of Civil Affairs Mohamed Dahlan attended the meeting.

At the meeting, Peres called on Qurei to increase Palestinian security operations so that negotiations between the two sides can be renewed.

While terming the meeting as "good," Peres said the merger of the Palestinian security bodies is an important step ahead of talks.

For his part, Qurei pledged that changes in the Palestinian security apparatuses will be carried out soon.

They agreed that professional teams of the two sides should renew their talks and there will be economic cooperation for the pullout.

In New York, a senior UN official said the Palestinians must do more to reorganize their security forces to prevent violence and Israel must halt all settlement activities if recent hopes for resolving the Middle East conflict are to be sustained.

"Recent events in the Middle East continue to confirm the potential for peace, but warn us as well that this new process is still fragile," said Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast in a briefing to the Security Council.

He welcomed the public reiteration by both sides of their willingness to coordinate Israel's planned withdrawal of its settlements in the Gaza Strip this summer, but voiced concern "at reports that this announced readiness to coordinate has not yet been sufficiently translated into practice."

"Direct dialogue and communication are essential first steps toward ensuring that the disengagement is as smooth and non-violent as possible," he added.

"The pressing challenge for the parties and the international community is to take all possible actions to ensure that disengagement happens, that it happens in a coordinated way, and that it does not become a dead end, but contributes to the momentum for peace," he said.

While stressing that there is "no quick fix" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he urged the two parties to implement their commitments under the roadmap peace plan and an accord reached recently at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Meanwhile, sporadic violent incidents continued in the region.

The Israeli military said on Thursday that a jeep patrolling the Gaza-Israel border was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from Gaza, seriously wounding a soldier.

Israel's commanders in Gaza also said they noted an increase in Palestinian attacks in recent days, warning that a two-month truce might be in jeopardy.

In central Gaza, a riot erupted after Israeli soldiers closed a road. One Palestinian was wounded by Israeli gunfire before soldiers lifted the roadblock, witnesses said.

(Xinhua News Agency April 22, 2005)

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