Israel to transfer Gaza settlements intact
Israel will transfer Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians intact, the defense minister decided Thursday, reversing an earlier plan to destroy all homes during this summer's withdrawal.
The decision, which would need Cabinet approval, was made in a meeting with top Israeli security officials. Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said international reaction and environmental concerns led Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to change his earlier decision to knock down the homes.
"Taking all those things into account, the defense minister made a recommendation not to destroy the private houses," Boim told Army Radio.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his top aides also toured the Nitzanim area north of the Gaza Strip to survey a possible relocation site for the settlers. He spent about 15 minutes in an area north of the town of Nitzan, checking maps with his aides, before leaving. Sharon said he would have an answer about the plan in the coming days.
Mofaz initially had recommended destruction of the homes and greenhouses in the settlements. Israel had wanted to avoid scenes of jubilant Palestinians taking over the settlers' homes.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel not to engage in "wanton destruction" of the settlers' homes.
Under Mofaz's new plan, the settlement synagogues and ritual baths would be dismantled and moved to Israel. The mezuzahs — religious objects attached to door frames — would also be removed.
The buildings will be handed over, either to the Palestinians or to a world agency, once the evacuation is completed, according to the plan. The army bases would all be destroyed.
Palestinians have not yet decided what to do with the evacuated areas. Some wanted the houses to remain, while others argued it would be better to replace them with higher-density housing projects. Some officials feared the houses would be doled out as perks to Palestinian officials.
Palestinian officials repeatedly have complained that Israeli was not negotiating the pullout with them and criticized Mofaz's unilateral decision.
"They have finished the negotiations with themselves, and now they are trying to tell us what to do," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
"We cannot afford to have settlers' homes in Gaza ... in the densely populated Gaza Strip. Gaza is the most densely populated area on Earth," he said, complaining that the houses are too big.
Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired a rocket from northern Gaza toward the Israeli town of Sderot. The rocket exploded harmlessly in a field, but Israeli officials said it was a sign that Palestinians are not moving against militants.
Since Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to more than four years of bloodshed on Feb. 8, such rocket attacks have been rare.
Mofaz called the attack a "most serious event" and charged that it was "painful proof" that the Palestinian leadership was not acting to rein in militants, despite its declarations about restoring order.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the rocket launching. Palestinian officials said they were investigating.
Government officials hope the Nitzanim plan will weaken settler opposition, but security officials have expressed concerns that some might resist evacuation violently.
Police said Thursday they have stepped up their level of alert at the hilltop holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Security officials fear Jewish extremists, who are planning a rally there Sunday, would try to attack the site in an effort to stop the pullout.
Speaking later in Tel Aviv, Sharon said that though no one wants to leave his home, now that the government and parliament have approved the pullout, "the residents also understand they must move to other places."
Some Gaza settlers have said their resistance to the withdrawal could crumble if the government moved their communities en masse to the Nitzanim area and gave them suitable farmland.
The plan also has angered environmentalists, worried that the new communities there would destroy sensitive sand dunes and nature reserves. Dozens protested before Sharon's visit near the Nitzanim nature reserve, with rolling sand dunes, water pools and long stretches of pristine beaches.