JERUSALEM, April 18 -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that he favors a three-week delay in starting Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, ostensibly because of a mourning period that precedes a Jewish holiday.
A postponement would give the ill-prepared government more time to plan the withdrawal but would also give Jewish extremists more time to organize resistance.
"I'm positively inclined toward this," Sharon told reporters. "We simply have to make it as easy as possible."
Meanwhile, Israel announced plans to build 50 more homes in a West Bank settlement -- a decision immediately criticized by the White House.
"Israel should not be expanding settlements, and the Palestinian leaders need to act to dismantle terrorist organizations," press secretary Scott McClellan said. In a meeting in Texas a week ago, President Bush told Sharon that the United States opposed Israel's plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Yonatan Bassi, head of the agency handling evacuation of the settlers, suggested at a cabinet meeting on Sunday that the beginning of the pullout from Palestinian territories be put off from late July to mid-August because many Jews observe a three-week mourning period before Tisha B'Av -- the day that marks the destruction of the biblical temples -- which falls this year on Aug. 14.
Bassi, an observant Jew, raised the issue after "an internal struggle and talking to rabbis," said his spokesman, Haim Altman.
Sharon said he would put the proposed delay to a vote on Tuesday at a meeting of a cabinet committee overseeing the withdrawal.
In the 20 days before Tisha B'Av, observant Jews do not shave, cut their hair, listen to music or marry, but work is permitted. Jewish law does not specifically prohibit moving houses during the mourning period, but some say that would violate the spirit of the observance.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Tisha B'Av is associated with many tragedies and expulsions in Jewish history and said there were concerns about adding the Gaza evacuation to the list.
Responding to reports that the government was not prepared for the pullout, the official said that the evacuation could go forward as planned but that additional time would be helpful.
Sharon previously opposed any delay.