JERUSALEM – Israel will leave settlers' houses in Gaza intact after its summertime pullout, a senior official said, choosing environmental and international factors over settler feelings of anger and insult because Palestinians will take over their homes.
The question of what to do with the hundreds of red-roofed houses scattered throughout Gaza in 21 settlements has vexed the Israeli government for months as it prepares to evacuate Jewish settlers from the strip of coastal land.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) had initially recommended destroying the homes and greenhouses in the settlements, wanting to avoid scenes of jubilant Palestinians taking over the settlers' homes.
But many are also concerned that the destruction would damage the environment, make the pullout process longer and more expensive than planned, and generate international criticism.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) urged Israel not to engage in "wanton destruction" of the settlers' homes.
Under the new plan, announced by Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim on Army Radio Thursday, the settlement synagogues and ritual baths would be dismantled and moved to Israel while the private homes will be left standing.
The mezuzahs (search) — religious objects attached to door frames — would be removed.
The buildings will be handed over, either to the Palestinians or to a world agency, once the evacuation is completed, according to the plan. The army bases would all be destroyed.
Palestinians have not yet decided what to do with the evacuated areas. Some wanted the houses to remain, while others argued it would be better to replace them with higher-density housing projects. Some officials feared the houses would be doled out as perks to Palestinian officials.
Palestinian officials have repeatedly complained that Israeli was not negotiating the pullout with them, and criticized Mofaz's unilateral decision.
"They have finished the negotiations with themselves, and now they are trying to tell us what to do," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (search) said.
Israel counters that the Palestinians have shown no willingness to coordinate the pullback.
The change of plans also piqued rabbis identified with the settlers. They repeated their ruling that removing settlements from the West Bank and Gaza "and handing them over to non-Jews is the strongest forbidden act in the Torah."
They called on tens of thousands to join with the settlers to disrupt the evacuation, but also advocated nonviolence.
The government also took measures to counter a strategy by extremist Jews to disrupt the evacuation from Gaza by demonstrating at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem. They say their goal is to divert Israeli forces from Gaza to Jerusalem to scuttle the pullout.
With tensions rising in Jerusalem, the site, where the Al Aqsa Mosque (search) was built on top of the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples, police limited participation in Friday prayers at the mosque to Palestinian men over 40 and women of all ages, according to a statement.
Police banned the Jewish demonstration and closed the hilltop site to visitors on Sunday, while allowing Muslims to pray there.
Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired a rocket from northern Gaza toward the Israeli town of Sderot. The rocket exploded harmlessly in a field. Since Israel and the Palestinians declared a truce on Feb. 8, such attacks have been rare.
However, Defense Minister Mofaz called the rocket fire "very serious." In a statement, he demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) "take all necessary steps to prevent it from happening again."
Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa (search) said Palestinian security forces were investigating. The Palestinian leadership "will take all necessary measures to ensure implementation of declared Palestinian commitments," he said, referring to the truce.