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Despite poverty, many Palestinians want Israeli buildings demolished

RAFAH, Gaza Strip—Mustafa Abdeen's blood boils when he sees bulldozers tearing down a house. The 35-year-old unemployed construction worker, who lives in a Palestinian refugee camp on the Gaza-Egyptian border, has watched the Israeli military level his homes twice; most recently, a year ago during Israel's Operation Rainbow to root out Palestinian militants and weapons-smuggling tunnels.

But as sick as he is of demolitions, Abdeen hopes Israeli soldiers will raze one more group of buildings before they withdraw from the Gaza Strip in mid-August: the 21 Jewish settlements and military bases they're leaving behind.

"I don't want them. Our people would prefer to see these homes demolished and instead be given the land so they can build what they want to," said Abdeen, who now lives with his wife and five children in a bullet-torn warehouse he rents for $100 a month.

Even with months to go before the Israeli withdrawal begins, what to do with the buildings that might be left behind is a hot topic among Palestinians and Israelis alike. Officials of the Palestinian Authority are working with the World Bank and its retiring president, James D. Wolfensohn, to determine what to do with the assets.

Many Palestinians share Abdeen's view that Israel should destroy them on the way out.

"What's best for us is that they (Israel) destroy the settlements and take the rubble with them," said Tawfiq Abu Khosa, the Palestinian Interior Ministry's Gaza spokesman, estimating the razing could cost as much as $45 million. "It's less of a burden."

The strong Palestinian desire to see the buildings demolished may seem odd, given the international pressure on Israel to give them to impoverished Palestinians, who account for 71 percent of the population in Gaza. But Abu Khosa and others say the settlement villas, with their slanted, red-tiled roofs and irrigated lawns, don't meet Palestinian architectural needs. Palestinians in this crowded, 139-square-mile coastal strip prefer smaller parcels and rectangular, flat-roofed buildings that can expand upward as children establish families of their own and build their own apartments on top.

Fatma Abu Rezeq, 57, who lives in the Khan Younis refugee camp some 70 yards from the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, agrees. She no longer can see the settlement's houses—a concrete barrier built in recent years blocks the view—but she prefers that the homes and the wall be razed when the settlers leave.

"I wouldn't want to live there," she said, standing atop the rubble of her extended family's home, which Israeli tanks destroyed in a battle last year. "I don't think the red-tiled roofs are as sturdy as my asbestos one."

Added her husband, Kamal: "I prefer to be compensated so we can rebuild our house, which I spent $35,000 on and only lived in for two years."

Destroying the homes also will ensure that senior Palestinian Authority officials don't confiscate the property for themselves, said another refugee-camp dweller, Fouad Mahmoud Nonaideq, 43, who like most of the Palestinians interviewed for this story believes his government to be corrupt despite reforms initiated by his new leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is evaluating whether to raze the settlements. Some argue that letting Palestinian militants occupy Israeli buildings will allow them to declare the Israelis' withdrawal a Palestinian victory.

There are anywhere from 750 to 2,000 houses for Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, depending on whether the World Bank, settlement watchdog groups or Palestinian economists are counting.

Israeli-controlled land in the Gaza Strip—including settlements, military bases, roads, security buffer zones and farmland—composes 18 percent to 40 percent of Gaza, again depending on who's doing the estimates. A small industrial zone with wood and metal workshops caters mainly to settlers and employs some 90 Israelis and 120 Palestinians, according to the World Bank.

Palestinian officials complain that Israel so far hasn't provided an inventory of its settlement holdings. Israeli officials say that's because the Palestinians have refused to coordinate the withdrawal with them, something Abbas has said must be linked to restarting peace talks.

Even if Israel opts to leave everything to the Palestinians, estimates by the World Bank and Palestinian economic experts suggest it won't be enough to boost the Palestinian economy significantly.

Nor will the Israeli withdrawal ease housing shortages, said Karen Koning Abu Zayd, the deputy commissioner general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which oversees refugee camps in the area. An estimated 2,400 Palestinian homes in Gaza have been razed or destroyed in the last four-and-a-half years of Israeli incursions.

Some 700 Palestinian families moved earlier this month into a gleaming new apartment complex west of Gaza City, paid for by the United Arab Emirates. Other housing projects funded by the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations are to be built in the south near the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.

As for the settlements, the Palestinian Authority has assigned a "technical team" to come up with proposals to maximize economic potential, Abu Khosa said.

That's something that other Palestinian factions favor, including the Islamic militant faction Hamas.

"If they could be used as hotels or tourist places, that would be best," Ghazi Hamad, the editor in chief of the pro-Hamas weekly publication al Resala, said of the settlement buildings. "No one is going to move into the homes of the settlers."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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