Monday, January 24, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israeli authorities are having second thoughts about a plan to destroy all buildings in Jewish settlements before handing the land back to the Palestinians.

The Israeli Cabinet approved the original scorched-earth plan a year ago in response to fears of Palestinian militants raising their flags in triumph on the roofs of homes in the Jewish settlements to be evacuated.

In current discussions within Israel’s National Security Council, participants from government ministries and the security forces are saying that there are far more reasons to leave the structures intact than to destroy them.

Representatives of the army, which is to execute the evacuation, said the cost of destroying buildings in some 17 settlements and clearing the rubble would be in the tens of millions of dollars.

The demolition and clearance would also require the army to remain in the Gaza Strip for a period after the settlers have been removed, which could lead to clashes with the Palestinians.

Other participants raised environmental and legal aspects. “Under international law,” said one, “occupied territory has to be left in the same condition, or better, than it was when occupied. In order to do that, we would have to bury the rubble so that it doesn’t interfere with agriculture or building in the future.

“From the practical point of view, it’s in Israel’s interest not to destroy the buildings.”

However, the psychological argument against leaving the buildings intact — the sight of Palestinian flags on red-tile rooftops abandoned by Israel — may still outweigh the other considerations.

“This is a sensitive matter,” a participant in the discussions told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. “It will depend in part on the general atmosphere and on our relations with the Palestinians at the time.”

If the current lull in the conflict takes root in the coming months, the Cabinet decision regarding demolition might be reversed, particularly since the dovish Labor Party is now a member of the coalition, while some hard-line parties, which participated in the decision to destroy the houses, have left the government.

“I believe that a decision on this will be made in the coming weeks,” said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. “We’ve got to see whether the evacuation will be carried out unilaterally or in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.”

Israeli officials have suggested that the World Bank purchase from the departing settlers the greenhouses and other installations, which are used for growing flowers and vegetables for export to Europe. These facilities would in turn be passed on by the bank to the Palestinians.

When Israel evacuated the town of Yamit in northeast Sinai in 1982 as part of its peace agreement with Egypt, it destroyed the town and left the rubble.

However, the area was in a relatively remote region, and to this day only wandering Bedouin can be found amid the sand-covered rubble.

By contrast, the Gaza Strip is densely populated, and the Palestinians will want to make immediate use of the land evacuated by Israel.

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