A new boost for Gaza pullout

Bribery charges were dropped Tuesday against Prime Minister Sharon, lending him opposition support for withdrawal plan.

Ariel Sharon's chances of fulfilling his promise to withdraw from the Gaza Strip grew Tuesday, after the Israeli prime minister was told he would not be indicted on corruption charges, which had put his plan in limbo.

Now that the plan seems more likely to move ahead, the question of how to extract the thousands of Jewish settlers from the occupied territory remains largely unanswered.

Mr. Sharon says he plans to have all of the approximately 7,500 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005, and will start offering compensation packages in the coming months to those who leave voluntarily.

But the logistics of the evacuation may be as controversial as the settlements themselves: Sharon plans to move many of them into the West Bank, according to recent Israeli media reports, and will destroy the homes of the Jewish settlers who live in some 20 communities overlooking farmland and the Mediterranean coastline.

Israel has taken this route before - when it withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula after the 1979 Camp David Accords with Egypt - and not without some criticism. Despite objections, Israel demolished Yammit, its Sinai settlement along the Red Sea, before leaving Egypt.

Now, Israeli officials say they plan to demolish most of the 1,000 homes they have built in Gaza since wresting control of it from Egypt in the 1967 war. Utilities, factory space, and key public buildings currently used for schools and synagogues would remain standing.

"The houses will be destroyed. The reasoning behind it is that one of the most urgent issues in the Gaza Strip is to provide housing for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been living in refugee camps," says Ambassador Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, in a telephone interview from New York.

The key point, he says, is not that Israel wants to prevent Palestinians from moving into the settlers' middle-class homes, but that Gaza's teeming population makes it more pragmatic for the settlements to be replaced with towering apartment buildings.

Moreover, he says, Israel is concerned that only politically powerful Palestinians will wind up in the settlers' homes. "There will be high-rise apartment buildings, perhaps by some international consortium, and Israel would provide the land - land where the settlements are now," he says.

"By turning the houses over to the Palestinian side now, only the ringleaders, who have the political pull, will get priority. It wouldn't be the poor people, the actual homeless people who need housing, but the well-connected - and this is not the purpose of the exercise."

Shoval also acknowledges that there is some influence of what Israeli intelligence assessments fear will be the psychological reverberations of a pullout that leaves behind hundreds of Israeli homes. Israeli military strategists have advised politicians to avoid a "another Lebanon," shorthand for the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in April 2000.

Lebanon's Hizbollah, or the Party of God, had led the front against Israel's presence in south Lebanon and took credit for forcing Israel out. Israeli officials worry about the image it will send if triumphant Palestinian flags - or those of the Islamic militant group Hamas - are hoisted up over the settlers' evacuated homes.

"It's a factor to consider - it depends on the eyes of the beholder," Shoval adds. "What if the sight of Arabs moving into Jewish houses would be seen by Palestinians as a precedent of what to expect in the future?"

Still, the image of Israel destroying any homes in the Gaza Strip - even the settlers' houses - will probably attract international censure. In Israel's most recent military operations in the Gaza Strip, some 3,400 people lost their homes, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

"Although there is no public US position on this issue, our preference be that the homes not be destroyed but that they go to the Palestinians," says a US official. "It would be to the benefit of Israel if the world would see them turning this over."

The Bush administration may also finding itself in a difficult position vis-a-vis Sharon's apparent plans to offer the Gaza settlers homes in the West Bank.

According to the newspaper Maariv, they would be given homes in settlements close to Jerusalem, such as the Gush Etzion bloc to the south of the city. An expansion near the settlements of Ariel in the northern West Bank and of Maale Adumim to the east of Jerusalem are also being considered.

But such plans would contradict the road map to Middle East peace, which calls on Israel to halt settlement growth. "Philosophically," the US official adds, "we don't want to see settlers leave Gaza so they can move to the West Bank."

One new option is the possibility of enlisting a third party to help oversee the transfer, such as the United Nations or bodies of the European Union.

"There is no decision yet. We are looking for someone who can take responsibility for these houses," says an Israeli security official. "But we expect it will be like in Yammit, so they won't vandalize the property when we leave."

Others say they hope Israel will think twice before destroying the homes, which are of far better quality than those lived in by the vast majority of Gaza's 1.2 million residents. "I don't think the destruction of the settlements is carved in stone," says UNRWA spokesman Paul McCann.

But top UNRWA officials say that "it would be a wasted opportunity if they were demolished. It seems that the settlements could have been used in some sort of future compensation deal. And since it's unilateral, that probably won't come to pass, so that's a pity."

So far, the Palestinian Authority has had no official reaction to potential plans to destroy the existing homes.

"We care about ending the occupation and evacuating settlements. That's what counts," says Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Authority's Minister of Labor.

But, Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, confirmed Palestinians' fears about what the withdrawal from Gaza would mean - an increase in settlement building in the West Bank. "What Mr. Mofaz said regarding this plan today is that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will allow them to consolidate the settlement process in the West Bank," says Khatib.

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