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Sharon confirms Gaza pullout withdrawal

Sharon confirms Gaza pullout withdrawal
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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has confirmed he will delay the pullout of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip by three weeks, to mid-August. The move, to avoid clashing with a traditional Jewish period of mourning, had been widely predicted. However Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has also suggested Israel could rethink its pullout if radical group Hamas wins legislative elections due in July. Official returns suggest Hamas won about 30 out of 84 municipal councils in Friday’s local elections, including towns such as Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Activists linked to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party accused Hamas of stuffing ballot boxes, but international monitors said voting was generally fair.

Officials of the “quartet”, the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia, have called on Israelis and Palestinians to fulfil their obligations under the Road Map peace plan. Ariel Sharon has put the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners on hold, demanding tougher action to curb militants. Israeli police at a sensitive East Jerusalem site clashed with Palestinians who gathered to stop a planned protest by right-wing Jewish activists.