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Israel, Palestinians Agree That Settlers' Homes Will Be Razed

Secretary of State Rice announces the decision in Jerusalem, erasing one issue in the Gaza withdrawal. It is unclear who will foot the bill.

June 20, 2005|Ken Ellingwood and Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed that hundreds of Jewish homes in the Gaza Strip will be demolished when Israel evacuates settlers this summer.

The announcement appeared to settle a debate over what would be done with the houses after Israel abandons 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four others in the northern West Bank. Some Israelis, including Vice Premier Shimon Peres, advocated handing over the homes to Palestinians. But Palestinian officials say leaving the single-family dwellings intact wouldn't ease a housing shortage in Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

Rice mentioned the decision as she spoke about a broader agreement on a "statement of principles" to govern the Gaza pullout.

The agreement marks an important if incremental step in advancing the withdrawal, which the Bush administration sees as the best chance for breathing new life into the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

She said the two parties agreed the withdrawal should be peaceful and provide for the passage of Palestinian people and goods between the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a matter of central importance to the Palestinian leadership.

Rice repeatedly stressed that a Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip had to be economically viable and offer hope for a better life for the 1.3 million Palestinians who live there.

Her remarks at a news conference here reflected the U.S. position that providing the opportunity for a better future to young Arabs is key to reducing the anti-U.S. hatred that helps fuel terrorism in and from the region.

Rice, finishing a two-day visit aimed at ensuring closer coordination on the pullout, said both sides agreed that approximately 1,600 settler houses -- U.S.-style stucco homes with small yards -- should be destroyed to allow the Palestinians to build high-rise structures that can help ease crowding.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are due to meet Tuesday, and the houses issue will probably be on the agenda.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the current understanding calls for Israel to raze the homes and the Palestinians to dispose of the debris. Israel or a third party is to foot the bill for the cleanup, estimated by U.S. officials on Sunday at $50 million to $60 million, but arrangements have not been finalized.

The cleanup could provide hundreds of jobs for Palestinians. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is proposing that the debris be used to build a port in Gaza, according to news reports.

The fate of the homes has been a touchy issue for both sides, but there had been little meaningful discussion. Israel hoped to avoid televised images of its soldiers bulldozing Jewish homes, but was reluctant to leave the structures standing and have Palestinian fighters clambering onto the rooftops and claiming victory over retreating Jewish settlers.

The Palestinians had said they would raze the houses if Israel left them, but they did not want to be saddled with the expense of demolition and hauling off the debris.

Rice said the two sides also must work out what to do with hundreds of Israeli greenhouses in the area. The crops could boost the Palestinian economy in Gaza after Israel exits. Palestinian planners are examining possible uses for the land.

"There's much more work to be done," Rice said.

She said Sharon and Abbas appeared committed to making sure the withdrawal was orderly and violence-free.

"I found the leaders on both sides to be focused, their governments focused, on what must be done and I think there is a good spirit of cooperation between them," Rice said, speaking to reporters after meetings here with Israeli leaders, including Sharon.

She spent the previous day in the West Bank town of Ramallah in meetings with Abbas and other Palestinian officials.

In other developments, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian fighter were killed in an attack on Israeli troops in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the attack by a pair of militants who fired antitank missiles and bullets at a military outpost where soldiers were working on a section of fence, said Capt. Yael Hartmann, a military spokeswoman.

The border area, a prohibited military zone, has been the scene of frequent clashes.

Islamic Jihad and the lesser known Abu Rish Brigades jointly claimed responsibility, saying they were responding to what they called Israeli violations of the cease-fire.

In another shooting today in the West Bank, one Israeli was killed and another wounded when their car came under fire between the Jewish settlement of Hermesh and the Palestinian town of Baqa al Sharqiya, the Israeli army said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

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