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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 8

An Israeli View:
Regrettably, destroy the houses

by Yossi Alpher

The prospect of a coordinated, "bilateral" Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip has rekindled interest in the fate of the real estate left behind once the settlers have departed or are physically removed. A number of schemes have been broached for leaving the settlements intact and turning them over to the Palestinian Authority for its use.

The PA refuses to pay for the houses, infrastructure, institutional buildings and greenhouses. It also refuses to recognize Israel's right to seek "credit" for these assets against the day when a final status agreement obliges it to pay compensation to the 1948 Palestinian refugees. The PA argues that it cannot recognize the financial value of settlements built illegally on its land. But it has no reason to reject the offers of third parties, possibly including wealthy Arab businessmen, to buy the buildings from Israel and integrate them into a development project or turn them over to the PA for its use.

Yet there remain good reasons why the preservation and purchase of private settler homes--as opposed to greenhouses, roads, electric and water infrastructure, industrial facilities and institutional buildings, which should be left intact--still makes no sense. First and foremost, Palestinian city planners don't want these one or two storey single family dwellings; the buildings take up valuable space housing relatively few people, whereas the urgent housing needs of Palestinians in Gaza dictate that the settlements be largely razed and replaced by high rise apartment houses.

Where previously some 8,000 settlers dwelled, Palestinian planners will house hundreds of thousands of needy Palestinians. After having imposed the settlements on the Palestinians for some three decades, the least we can do is heed their wishes.

Secondly, the departing settlers' emotional plight is going to be traumatic enough without exacerbating it by leaving their homes in place. Some of the Palestinians who would eventually live in the settlers' homes might have personally attacked Israelis. If Israel wants to continue with further redeployments after Gaza, it must do everything possible to help the uprooted settlers resume their lives inside Israel with a minimum of anguish.

Further, the ongoing existence of their former homes just across the border in Gaza, in some cases visible through binoculars from Israel, would inevitably serve as the objective of irredentist claims and longing by the former settlers. For years after the withdrawal from Sinai and the destruction of Yamit in 1982, settlers continued to write poems of longing for "their" Sinai.

Why feed this extremism by leaving actual dwellings in place, so that aging ex-settlers can point and tell their grandchildren, "there, there is our home". Palestinian refugees, for that matter all refugees, well know the power of symbols like abandoned homes. In this sense, whether by design or not, the demolition of Yamit--by, of all people, Ariel Sharon--helped guarantee that the removal of its settlers, in some cases by force, was not a very traumatic experience for Israel.

I doubt a third party will really be interested in buying these homes merely in order to destroy them in accordance with Palestinian wishes.

So the question that remains is, who will do the demolishing? It could make sense for Israel to leave the settlements in their entirety to the PA or to a third party like the World Bank, so that planners can evaluate the buildings and decide objectively what to destroy and what to leave standing, how to adapt the roads and electrical and water infrastructure for Palestinian needs, and how best to dispose of the building waste, e.g., as landfill for the construction of the Gaza port.

But only if Israel can be absolutely certain that the vast majority of the actual dwellings, along with synagogues and other sensitive buildings, will indeed be quickly destroyed and not grabbed by squatters.

Otherwise, the IDF will have no choice but, for the good of all concerned, to destroy the dwellings and truck away the wreckage.- Published 28/2/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 03-03-2005



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