By Glenn Kessler and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 19, 2005 1:29 PM
JERUSALEM, June 19 -- Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed that Jewish settlers' homes in the Gaza Strip will be demolished as Israeli citizens and soldiers leave the area this summer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Sunday after two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
The accord settles a long festering issue and is the first significant agreement between the two parties in the complex and potentially violent undertaking that began as unilateral step by Israel to separate itself from the Palestinians. In recent months, both sides have complained the other has failed to coordinate. But Rice emerged from the intensive discussions to say both sides had agreed to a set of principles, including a pledge to coordinate plans and "ensure that disengagement proceeds smoothly, without violence."
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plan to meet Tuesday in Jerusalem to further discuss the Israeli departure from Gaza and other vexing Israeli-Palestinian issues. Rice had come to the region saying she was not planning to negotiate for the parties, but the decision to have the secretary of state announce the principles underscored the increasingly central role played by the United States in the Gaza withdrawal.
Rice said the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to coordinate on security to ensure peace and "create the conditions for economic viability and hope," that Palestinian goods and people should flow "in and out of Gaza at a level that will allow for economic revival," and that the settler homes in Gaza should be removed.
"The course ahead is going to require even more coordination," Rice said. "There need to be no surprises between the two sides in terms of what's going to happen in the Gaza."
Under the housing plan, the Israel military will begin to destroy the 1,200 homes during the three- to four-week period that settlers will leave -- or be forced from their homes -- beginning in mid-August, Israeli officials said. The clean-up and removal of the debris will be handled by the Palestinians, creating both a jobs program and an incentive for Palestinians to carefully plan how the areas are used in the future. The estimated cost of the clean-up will be $50-60 million, a U.S. official said, and a senior Israeli official said Israel would seek the help of international donors to defray the cost.
The tussle over the homes illustrates the mix of political, economic and perception issues that has thwarted deeper cooperation between the two sides on Israel's plans to leave 21 settlements in Gaza and four small settlements on the northern West Bank. The settlements and military-controlled areas make up 20 percent of the Gaza Strip, including much of its fertile land and all of the southern seashore.
To win a parliamentary vote on the Gaza withdrawal last year, Sharon had pledged to dismantle the homes. Palestinian officials were not eager to keep the red-roofed middle-class homes while 1.3 million people are struggling for housing in the narrow coastal strip. But some Palestinian officials have been hesitant to coordinate too closely on the issue, believing it would undermine claims that Israel was driven from Gaza.
Under international law, Israel was required to return the property as it had been when Israel seized it during the 1967 war. This would have meant a costly and time-consuming clean-up and left Israeli soldiers vulnerable to attack for months. Moreover, indiscriminate destruction of the homes could have ruined water and sewer lines necessary for future development.
A series of other issues must still be settled, including the transfer of greenhouses and other facilities to the Palestinians. Israel is also vehemently opposed to the rebuilding of Gaza's airport and continues to reject giving lethal weapons to overhauled Palestinian security forces, two senior U.S. officials said in a briefing for reporters traveling with Rice. But officials said that in contrast to the complete lack of communication between the two sides as recently as three months ago, they believe Israelis and Palestinians are on the cusp of beginning regular, senior-level discussions.
A U.S. army general, William E. Ward, has been working with the Palestinians on overhauling security forces, while former World Bank President James Wolfensohn has been charged with overseeing economic issues. But, in a measure of the dangerous situation, Ward, Wolfensohn and other U.S. officials are prohibited from traveling in Gaza; Wolfensohn visited the area under British protection shortly before he left the bank.
Violence erupted in Gaza both on Saturday, when Rice met with Abbas, and Sunday, when she met with Sharon. Israeli officials said that on Sunday morning one Israeli soldier was killed and two others were wounded when Palestinian gunmen fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military post along Gaza's heavily fortified border with Egypt. In apparent coordination, the attack came moments before Palestinian fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and light arms at Israeli soldiers and civilians engaged in construction work nearby, Israel military officials said.
The area has been a major arms smuggling route used by armed Palestinian groups bringing weapons into Gaza. The militant group Islamic Jihad and the Fatah Abu Rish Brigades claimed joint responsibility for the Sunday morning attack. One Palestinian gunman was killed in the ensuing gun battle.
Among the issues Israeli officials hoped to resolve during Rice's visit was the Bush administration's concern over Israeli arms sales to China, something that has caused friction in Israeli-U.S. relations over the past six months. Israeli press reports Sunday suggested that the United States would be given the right to review all future Israeli arms sales to foreign countries, although Israeli officials said an agreement on the matter has yet to be reached.
"This is something that is being handled very delicately between the two security services," said a senior Israeli official familiar with the talks.
The United States has expressed concern over Israeli weapons sales to China for the past 15 years. But the issue came to a head five years ago when U.S. pressure scuttled Israeli plans to sell Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft to China, a deal valued at between $250 million and $1 billion.
The most recent dispute arose last year over Israel's plans to provide spare parts for a fleet of Harpy armed drone aircraft it originally sold to China in the late 1990s with U.S. approval. U.S. defense officials complained that the spare parts constituted a significant upgrade of the aircraft, possibly including the addition of sensors able to detect radar sites even when turned off. In protest, the Pentagon froze cooperation with Israel on several joint weapons projects.
"If things were done that were not acceptable to the Americans then we are sorry, but these things were done with the utmost innocence," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel radio Sunday.