Israel May Not Destroy Gaza Settlements

Israel may leave buildings in Jewish settlements intact after a Gaza Strip (search) withdrawal, rather than demolishing them as initially planned, senior officials said Monday.

Demolition would force Israeli troops to spend more time in Gaza, exposing them to possible attack by Palestinian militants for a longer period, and would drive up the price of withdrawal, said Giora Eiland, the head of Israel's National Security Council.

Palestinian leaders have not given a clear preference, but have said some of the settlement homes, most of them one-story cottages, would have to be demolished to make room for high-rises that could ease a severe housing shortage in densely populated Gaza.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday he expected Israel and the Palestinians to discuss the issue, one of many to be resolved ahead of the withdrawal that is set for summer. "I don't think we can afford to have houses that stand on 500 square meters (1/8 of an acre)," Erekat said.

If the 21 Gaza settlements are left standing, the Palestinians would also have to ensure that militants do not take over the areas.

Israel's Cabinet initially decided last year to destroy the buildings to save the settlers the grief of seeing Palestinians — and possibly militants — living in the homes. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) initially envisioned the withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements as a unilateral move.

However, with a more moderate Palestinian leadership taking over after Yasser Arafat's death in November, Sharon has said he is willing to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinians.

Eiland said demolishing the homes would increase the cost of the withdrawal by about $18.4 million. "We advise against destroying the homes," Eiland told Israel Radio. "When you weigh the pros and cons ... it would be better to try to reach an agreement to hand over the houses in an organized manner ... to international or more responsible Palestinian parties."

Ilan Cohen, the chief of Sharon's bureau, said the issue will be reviewed in the coming weeks. "We are talking about a learning process. The entire disengagement process, or the Gaza pullout, is a process in which we are learning all the time," Cohen told Israel Radio. "There was a decision that was correct for that time, it is possible that the decision is also correct today."

Israel's Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon warned that demolishing the homes would require Israel to deal with tons of trash, some of it containing the carcinogen asbestos.

"We have to really hope that the Palestinians will agree to leave the homes intact," Simhon said. The TV images of Palestinians dancing on the red-tiled rooftops of the settler homes after the withdrawal are not as concerning as "the damage we will cause to the aquifers, to the health of the public," he added.

Meanwhile, an Israeli woman died Monday of wounds suffered in a bombing in Tel Aviv over the weekend. Her death raised the toll in the bombing to five.

Israel blamed Syria and the Islamic Jihad (search) for the bloody weekend bombing in Tel Aviv, calling off confidence-building measures but appearing to rule out military retaliation — giving a bit more breathing room to a shaky truce with the Palestinians.

At a Sunday Cabinet meeting, Israel decided to suspend a plan to turn control of five West Bank towns over to the Palestinians and free 400 more prisoners. Those gestures were agreed on at a summit in Egypt on Feb. 8, where Sharon and Abbas declared a truce.

The attack and the Israeli measures underlined the fragility of the truce and its vulnerability to attacks by extremists who oppose any accommodation.