Settlers' homes in Gaza will be razed, Rice says


JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday 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.

Rice's announcement appeared to settle a debate over what to do with the houses after Israel abandons 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four 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 would not ease the housing shortage in densely populated Gaza.

Rice spoke about the decision on the settlers' homes as she mentioned 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 parties agreed that the withdrawal should be free of violence and provide for the passage of Palestinians and goods between the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a matter of central importance to the Palestinian leadership.

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

Her remarks reflected the Bush administration's position that providing the opportunity for a better future to young Arabs is crucial to reducing the anti-American hatred that helps fuel terrorism.

Rice, finishing a two-day visit, said both sides agreed that approximately 1,600 settler houses --stucco homes with red-tile roofs and small yards -- should be destroyed to allow the Palestinians to build high-rise structures better suited to easing crowding.

"The parties will work toward a plan for destruction and cleanup," she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to meet tomorrow, 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 for the Palestinians to dispose of the debris. Israel or a third party would foot the bill for the cleanup, estimated to cost $50 million to $60 million.

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

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 cleanup.

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

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

On a separate issue, Rice appeared to have won agreement from the Israelis to curtail sales of sensitive military equipment and technology to China.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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