Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Israel dangles new compensation carrot before Gaza settlers

REUTERS , JERUSALEM

Israel plans to pay an average of US$300,000 per family in compensation to settlers who leave the Gaza Strip and will give swift cash advances to those who go voluntarily, government officials said on Friday.

The cash advances could be available by August under a draft proposal by a government committee working out the details of a Gaza pullout plan that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet has approved in principle, the officials said.

Payouts before a planned March Cabinet vote on whether to begin removing settlements could force a showdown between Sharon and hardliners in his coalition, bringing it closer to collapse, political analysts said.

News on Wednesday that the committee was proposing that voluntary evacuations begin in two months set Sharon on a collision course with the powerful settler lobby, which sees cash advances as an attempt to make settlers to quietly and quickly.

Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for Gaza settlers, said most had signed a declaration refusing to leave or to negotiate payouts.

Government officials estimated the average payout per household at US$300,000, based on the number of family members and the size of agricultural plots.

Such a sum would be enough to buy a one-family house with a garden or a large apartment in many communities in Israel.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Sharon the international community was ready to offer assistance and resources to ensure the plan's successful implementation, Sharon's office said in a statement.

The total government bill -- including a troop withdrawal from Gaza and removal of four West Bank settlements also scheduled to go -- could come to more than US$1.5 billion.

Israeli media reports said Sharon hoped to push settler compensation legislation through parliament by late next month.

But it is unclear whether his government can last that long. Sharon lost his parliamentary majority on Tuesday when two members of the pro-settler National Religious Party (NRP) defected from his coalition.

The NRP has still to make a final decision on whether to stick by the prime minister. Its departure from the government would likely spur Sharon to seek a partnership with the pro-withdrawal Labour Party or force early elections.

Sharon's plan envisages the removal of all 21 settlements in Gaza, a sandy coastal strip where 7,500 settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians live, and four of 120 in the West Bank, which is home to some 230,000 settlers and 2.4 million Palestinians.

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