Israeli officials, concerned about the rising power of the militant Islamic group Hamas, are sending mixed signals about whether Israel will go ahead with its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank. But, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists the withdrawal will take place in mid-August. 

The prime minister's closest allies are busy shoring up support for the withdrawal plan among a divided populace, while others are expressing doubts about going through with it.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says the withdrawal must go ahead even if Hamas were to score a significant victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections July 17.

The militant Islamic group has done very well in recent local council elections and emerged as a serious rival to Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' mainstream Fatah faction.

But some in the Israeli government see the gains by Hamas as a warning and are publicly expressing doubts about the wisdom of the disengagement plan. Among the doubters is Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom who wonders how Israel would deal with a Palestinian leadership that included members of Hamas.

"What would happen then? Do you think there is a way to negotiate with them (Hamas) while their main aim and main goal is to destroy the state of Israel," Mr. Shalom says.

Mr. Shalom has given only lukewarm support to the withdrawal plan from the beginning.

But, the rising power of Hamas is of concern to others in Israel as well. The group has claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks against Israelis and even though it has agreed to the current truce, it is still considered a terrorist organization by Israel.

Despite those concerns opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis support disengagement (withdrawal), while a very vocal minority remains opposed.

Speaking on Israeli television late Monday, Prime Minister Sharon repeated the plan's importance to Israel.

He said the decision to pull out of those specific Palestinian areas is in Israel's interests and designed to improve Israel's situation.

He confirmed earlier reports that the withdrawal would start between August 15 to 17 - almost a month later than originally scheduled. The delay is to avoid conflict with a traditional Jewish mourning period from late July to mid-August. 

Tuesday, Mr. Sharon repeated his often stated belief that withdrawing from Gaza will strengthen Israel's position to maintain control over large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.  He has already secured American support for holding onto the main settlements under a future final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Palestinians reject that position, saying final borders and control over land must be negotiated, not given away beforehand.