Israel opens talks on compensation for Jewish settlers

AP , Jerusalem

Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 7

Israel has started compensation talks with Jewish settlers ready to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their lawyer said, as part of an evacuation plan that has fueled a Palestinian power struggle.

With the Israeli pullout plan moving forward, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia began asserting his authority over a branch of the security forces Wednesday, a concession he won from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat after a 10-day standoff that paralyzed the Palestinian leadership.

US and Israeli leaders -- and many Palestinians -- have voiced skepticism that the deal struck on Tuesday was the last word in the tussle between Arafat and a corps of politicians and young militants bridling under his dictatorial rule.

Political tensions among the Palestinians were heightened by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw the army and all Jewish settlers from Gaza by next September. Israeli Justice Ministry officials held their first meeting with a lawyer representing 90 families living in the Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank, also slated for evacuation, over compensation for voluntarily leaving their homes.

The lawyer, Joseph Tamir, said advance payments could be made as early as this October, though it was unclear how much money the settlers would receive or when they would have to move.

"They were playing their cards very close to the chest," Tamir said, "but an advance that does not reflect the ability to buy a new home is not realistic."

Nearly all the families moved to the settlements for economic reasons rather than an ideological commitment, Tamir said. Ideologues among the settlers threaten to resist evacuation, charging that giving up a few settlements means abandoning parts of the God-given Jewish homeland and would endanger Israel's security.

Sharon says, however, the unilateral withdrawal of civilians and the military from Gaza would reduce friction and end rule over more than 1 million Palestinians. He also has said it would help entrench Israel in the West Bank, to which he attaches a higher priority.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that soldiers discovered a Palestinian tunnel near one of the isolated Gaza settlements, Netzar-im, near Gaza City. The military said the tunnel was to be used for smuggling weapons for an attack.

Early yesterday, Israeli forces entered the Rafah Palestinian, `stroyed at least 18 abandoned buildings. Israeli military sources said the soldiers were searching for arms tunnels, and the empty structures were used by militants as cover for attacks on Israeli forces.

Elsewhere in Gaza yesterday, two Palestinians were killed when an explosive device they were carrying exploded near Khan Younis, Israeli military sources said. The sources said the Israeli army was not involved in the incident.

Also yesterday, an armed Palestinian man was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Israel Army Radio reported.

A military spokesman said soldiers were arresting Palestinian suspects in the area when gunmen opened fire on them. The spokeswoman said the soldiers returned fire and that one of the attackers was hit. In another incident yesterday, two homemade Palestinian rockets landed in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, a military spokesman said.

Israeli rescue services said five residents were treated for shock.

The rockets were launched six weeks after the Israeli army began an open-ended operation in the northern Gaza Strip to locate and destroy rocket launchers.

Israel's unilateral pullout plan has contributed to the Palestinian power struggle, with rival groups jockeying for position to control the poverty-stricken seaside strip after Israel leaves.