The government has told Gaza Strip settlers they could move en masse to an environmentally sensitive area in southern Israel, a senior Cabinet minister said yesterday.
Settler representatives who met with government officials Monday night were told the government would build up to four new towns for them if they move to the Nitzanim area on the southern Israeli coast, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said.
"The government clarified what it is willing to promise the settlers who fear -- and possibly with some justification -- that on the day after [the pullout], no one will have an interest in advancing a [resettlement] plan, and therefore we promised to guarantee legislation and fast-track planning,'' Livni told Israel Radio.
The ball is now in the settlers' court, Livni said.
"We just asked to know within a few days whether they are interested in moving ahead on this because if they are, then the government already has to erect trailers immediately," she said.
The government served notice more than a year ago that it would dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small communities in the northern West Bank this summer, which are home to 9,000 Israelis. But settlers have refused to make alternative housing and employment plans, seeing that as capitulation to an evacuation program they deplore.
Yitzhak Meron, a lawyer representing settlers, told Israel Army Radio it wasn't clear settlers would accept the Nitzanim project.
"A large number of people aren't able to make a decision right now," Meron said.
Environmentalists have objected to the Nitzanim project, afraid new towns in the area would destroy natural sand dunes.
Livni insisted the plan would not create an environmental hazard.
"No one plans to put the settlers on the dunes," she told Israel Army Radio.
The Nitzanim project was advanced because it gives settlers the opportunity to move as a community, she said.
"If group relocation can make resettlement easier, then it is our obligation to do it," she said, adding that "it is clear" to settlers that the government won't increase the amount of compensation it has promised evacuees.
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