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Israel Debates a Plan To Demolish Homes in the Settlements of Gaza

JERUSALEM — They’ll lower the flag and fold it decorously. Then they’ll point the final convoy north. But what will Israel leave behind when it evacuates the last Jewish settlers from Gaza? Rows of well-tended houses for homeless Palestinians? Empty fields? Or piles of toxic rubble?

As the August 15 date nears for the evacuation to begin, the fate of the 2,163 Jewish homes and public buildings in Gaza has become the subject of a furious debate. Prime Minister Sharon, after initial wavering, has come out in favor of transferring them to Palestinians, possibly via the World Bank. A new poll in Yediot Aharonot last weekend showed the settlers themselves overwhelmingly in favor of demolishing them.

The settlers have now received powerful backing from Avi Dichter, outgoing chief of the Shin Bet security service and the man arguably closest to Sharon’s ear during the last four and a half years. Dichter weighed in heavily over the weekend, with interviews in all three major newspapers, in favor of demolishing every last Jewish home in Gaza.

“If the homes aren’t sold to the Palestinians, we’ll need to raze them entirely,” he said to the daily Ha’aretz. “Otherwise there’ll be a carnival of destruction. Masses of people will come from Dir al-Balah and Khan Younis to storm the houses, taking every last Jewish faucet and brick. There isn’t one Palestinian policeman alive who would stop them. The idea of putting an international force there is a joke. No Swiss policeman will put his body on the line.”

Demolition would be costly. Recent estimates show that demolishing Jewish property in Gaza and removing the rubble would cost at least $20 million and add months to the disengagement timetable.

The delay could be damaging for Sharon. A poll conducted by the Ma’agar Mochot Survey Institute last week showed that support for the disengagement among Israelis was at 48%, down from a high of 65% in February. Sharon attributed the dwindling support to “incitement.” Still, each new poll adds pressure.

Others blame the decline on growing confusion regarding the day after. Construction plans for rehousing settlers are far behind schedule. Settler children are not enrolled in schools for the fall. The Palestinian Authority has yet to guarantee cooperation.

Most alarming, violence is widely believed to lurk just around the corner. Army sources have warned repeatedly, most recently in a gloomy interview by the outgoing chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, that the disengagement will be followed by a new outbreak of Palestinian terrorism.

Dichter was curtly dismissive of Ya’alon’s warnings, telling Yediot that the “apocalyptic forecast is not supported by any intelligence.” He said all Palestinian groups — including the radical Hamas — had an interest in keeping the peace. However, he said there was reason to worry about violence during the evacuation — from Jews who oppose withdrawal. “There are extreme Jews who have no problem shooting other Jews,” he said. “I don’t see why that’s so hard to understand. If they killed the prime minister, why would they hesitate to kill a soldier or policeman?”

Suicide attacks, he said, are an option not only for Palestinians. Suicidal Jews might try to kill Sharon in the weeks leading up to the disengagement, he warned. Two Jewish potential suicide attackers were apprehended May 1 on their way to igniting a car and themselves on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway, he said.

The other weak spot Dichter cited is the Temple Mount. Should a lone Jewish extremist decide to attack the Muslim holy places there, he said, the consequences would be felt mainly by Jews around the world, rather than in Israel. He said he recently delivered the warning directly to a group of radical West Bank rabbis, after receiving intelligence of a Jewish plot against the Temple Mount.

“In Israel we have already learned to defend ourselves from waves of terror,” Dichter told Ha’aretz. “We’ll know how to deal with it. But this person does not know how much he is endangering the Jewish diaspora abroad. The defense authorities in other countries haven’t got the means to protect these communities, and by the time they realize the significance of the event on the mount, it will be too late. Abroad we’ll be subjected to a horrible wave of terror attacks, along the lines of the [1994 truck-bomb] attack on the Jewish community building in Argentina. This is an almost certain scenario, and not one of the rabbis would be able to claim that his hands are clean.”

Despite the threats and uncertainty, Dichter unequivocally says disengagement “will be good for Israel.” “On a strategic level, it is impossible to continue ruling over another people,” he told Yediot. But he warned of the short-term psychological impact on Israelis of seeing thousands of Palestinians waving flags and gleefully looting.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s finance minister and chief rival, agrees with Dichter on demolition. He came out strongly in favor of destroying the houses at a May Cabinet meeting, warning that letting the Palestinians take over the homes “will be a tremendous moral victory for Palestinian terrorism.”

“Steps must be taken at all costs to prevent Palestinian murderers from inheriting the homes of their victims and dancing on the rooftops,” Netanyahu said.

The sharpest dissent came from a Labor minister, Haim Ramon. “You propose endangering hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers and civilians unnecessarily — to delay the disengagement by six months and spend 100 million shekels, when I can’t even get 100 shekels out of you for the elderly,” Ramon told Netanyahu.

Israel’s Ministry of Environment Affairs has also come out against demolition. In a strongly written public letter, the environment minister, Shalom Simhon of Labor, said that “razing the houses would tarnish Israel’s image and cause unprecedented environmental and economical damage to the country.” Simchon noted that the 15 million cubic feet of debris, including carcinogenic material such as asbestos, will be costly to transport and virtually impossible to bury.

The P.A. officially wants Israel to wreck the homes and haul away the rubble. Saeb Erekat, the authority’s chief spokesman, said on Voice of Peace radio in May that razing the houses is required not only by international law, but by common sense. Noting that much of the settler housing was wastefully expansive by Palestinian standards, Erekat said: “I’m telling them, ‘destroy the houses.’ We don’t need such houses in the most crowded place in the world.”

Some Israelis believe Erekat is only bargaining. “He’s just trying to drive down the price on the homes,” said Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer on Arab studies at Bar Ilan University. “In the end the Palestinian Authority will take the houses and give them to their sons.”

That scenario would be a windfall for Hamas, he said. Corruption in the P.A. has played a major role in the Islamic movement’s rising influence over the past decade.

The intermediate option — wrecking the houses, but leaving the rubble — is the worst, Kedar said. “If the houses are destroyed but not removed, the Palestinians will make a political fortune,” Kedar said. “They’ll give tours of the place like we do at Yad Vashem, like the Syrians do at [the wrecked Golan Heights city of] Kuneitra, showing how destructive the Jews are.”

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