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Sticking Point in Stucco

A nagging detail is still undecided in Israel's plan to pull out of Gaza: Should the ousted settlers' homes be razed? Disagreement prevails.

June 03, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

GADID, Gaza Strip — The newspaper advertisement a quarter of a century ago promised affordable property and a rustic life next to the Mediterranean Sea. Jacob Farkash, a 31-year-old Israeli, bought a compact house in the new Jewish settlement of Gadid and moved in with his young family.

Over the years, Farkash planted ficus trees and a lawn in the scrubby dunes of the Gaza Strip. As his family grew to include five children, the 600-square-foot house quadrupled in size, and today it looms over a shady corner lot, with air conditioning and a porch swing.

Suleiman abu Zarga, a 20-year-old Palestinian university student, shares three rooms with 12 other family members on the edge of the labyrinthine Khan Yunis refugee camp. His ramshackle neighborhood, scarred by skirmishes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters, sits perhaps a mile from Farkash's settlement and its "luxury villas," as Palestinians call the American-style stucco homes.

Although many of the houses are small and simple, others are spacious, two-story structures. Capped by red tile and fringed with bougainvillea, they are arrayed in neat tracts to form a necklace of 18 enclaves in the southern Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian student would give anything to have the keys to one of these residences. But the 1,600 single-family homes in the Gush Katif settlement bloc may instead fall to the wrecking ball.

If that happens, a question remains: Will the Israelis tear them down, or will the Palestinians?

The neat rows of houses, which look as if they had been plucked from a Southern California suburb, are to be emptied under Israel's plan to remove settlers and soldiers from all 21 settlements in Gaza, including three at the northern end, and from four communities in the West Bank.

The idea is to extricate Israel from a zone of frequent clashes while allowing it to focus on keeping its hold on major settlement blocs in the West Bank. The uprooted residents are to be compensated by the government and relocated in Israel.

With the withdrawal set for mid-August, the question of whether to demolish the structures or leave them to the Palestinians is taking on a growing urgency on both sides.

The Israeli Cabinet is expected to make a decision soon, with some officials saying Israel should destroy the houses rather than let them fall into Palestinian hands. Palestinian leaders say they will probably raze the homes, which now house about 8,000 people. They want to make way for high-rises that would better address the severe housing shortage among the 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, one of the most crowded places on Earth.

So far the deliberations have taken place separately, with little coordination between the two sides. The talks are complicated by a web of competing sensitivities surrounding the withdrawal, from what would look good in the world's eyes to concerns about environmental damage to enmity born of long years of bloodshed.

Israeli officials and many Jewish residents of Gaza object to the prospect of Palestinian gunmen clambering onto the settlements' tiled roofs, claiming triumph over Israeli forces.

"We can't imagine people dancing on our rooftops with a Palestinian flag," said Farkash, the homeowner. "These are the people who have been killing our people."

Although Farkash moved out of the family house after a breakup with his wife five years ago, he still owns it, and gets emotional about its fate. He grimaced when asked whether the government should tear down the houses. "I cannot even imagine it," he said while lunching recently in Neve Dekalim, which, at 2,500 residents, is the largest of the bloc's settlements.

But a companion, Yoel Shifman, was adamant: Israel should raze the homes if it goes through with the evacuation, even amid fierce resistance by settlers. "Don't leave them, in any case," said Shifman, 42, who lives in the nearby Netzer Hazani settlement.

If the homes are left standing, said Abu Zarga, the Palestinian student, they should go first to Palestinians whose houses have been destroyed in Israeli military raids since the eruption of hostilities in September 2000.

"Everybody who suffered a lot should be given one of these houses," he said.

But Palestinian planners say the structures don't fit their development model and would accommodate too few families, which in Gaza number 7.5 people, on average.

"Only 2,000 houses occupy an area that makes up 18% of the total area of the Gaza Strip," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, the Palestinian housing minister. "They don't fit within our development vision, within the way that we see housing projects in Gaza. This is very horizontal development. What we are looking for is to go into vertical development, because there is a land scarcity."

For Israel, which gets first crack at deciding the fate of the houses, the dilemma turns heavily on considerations of image.

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