Israeli security chiefs have agreed to postpone the planned withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and small portions of the northern West Bank for several weeks - until mid August.

Ariel Sharon
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to formally announce the delay early next month, after the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins at sundown on Saturday.

Israeli media label the postponement a foregone conclusion after senior security officials agreed on the delay at a meeting on Thursday.

The withdrawal from Gaza and portions of the northern West Bank was initially set for around July 20 until mid-August. But, officials say that timeframe coincides with a three-week religious observance to mourn the destruction of the biblical Jewish temples. While this is an annual event, it has taken on added significance at a time when Israelis are sharply divided over the withdrawal of Jewish settlements.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of Israelis favor the withdrawal. But, settlers and their hard-line supporters remain vehement in their opposition to the plan.

A survey carried out by the Tzav Pius group also shows that nearly a third of those questioned fear that disengagement will lead to a serious rift in Israeli society.

Eliraz Meir Ga'on of Tzav Pius told Israel radio the findings were disturbing.

"Twenty-nine percent of the people think that the disengagement process will cause a very serious rift between those who support the process and those who are against it," Ms. Ga'on said. "Forty-nine percent think the conflict will cause a rift in the long-term."

Ms. Ga'on did cite some positive findings as well - she said 90 percent of those questioned said unity among all Israelis was a primary goal.

Tzav Pius is an organization that promotes dialogue and reconciliation among all segments of Israeli society.

There are concerns that the settlers' staunch opposition to disengagement could lead to violence. But, outgoing military Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon says he does not foresee settlers resorting to violence against the soldiers who will be sent to evacuate them. General Ya'alon also predicted calm in Gaza after the withdrawal, at least in the short term.

The disengagement timetable will be among the items for discussion when Prime Minister Sharon meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, some time after the Passover holiday.