Gaza dreams

Palestinians envision life after the Jewish settlers leave, hoping to build a beach paradise.

Published May 3, 2005 1:59PM (EDT)

Hatem Abu Eltayef has a vision for the future of his crowded and battered town once the Israelis have retreated from the sprawling settlement on the other side of the barbed wire and machine gun posts. The town planner of Khan Yunis, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, foresees new homes for the dispossessed, shopping strips and tourists rubbing shoulders with locals on some of the finest beaches in the Mediterranean.

"People here say they want to go to the beach. They dream about it," Eltayef says. "But they also need housing and healthcare and more schools. Once the Jews are gone, we have a plan to build homes and shops and develop the beach for tourists. It will be a paradise."

First, however, there is the problem of what the settlers will leave behind. The Gush Katif Jewish settlements consume about 4,000 acres of the Gaza Strip between Khan Yunis and the sea, penning Palestinians behind the army watchtowers. But the estimated 8,000 settlers in Gaza must leave this summer or be removed by force as part of Ariel Sharon's unilateral "disengagement plan." After that, the Palestinians will finally gain control of what they describe as the last reserve of land in the territory, to help cope with a rapidly growing population and to provide for thousands of people bulldozed from their homes by the Israeli army. But the fate of the settlers' homes is still unresolved.

A few months ago the stage was set for a bitter dispute over what to do with them. The Israeli government said it had no intention of seeing Hamas flags raised over abandoned Jewish houses. The Palestinians said that to demolish the buildings would be wanton and spiteful destruction.

A closer examination of the issue has led each side to change position. Israel still plans to remove sensitive properties, such as synagogues, and to carry back the dead from the Khan Yunis graveyard. And it always planned to leave in place infrastructure such as schools, electricity plants and commercial greenhouses.

But Sharon now believes it would be better to leave most of the housing intact. Officials say the government is worried about the image that might be created by Israel razing new homes (Jewish ones, at least; it shows little concern over the bulldozing of hundreds of Palestinian houses). And the Palestinian leadership now believes that, if left in place, the settlers' homes could prove a political headache.

Muhammad el-Samhouri, a consultant to the Palestinian ministerial committee deciding how best to use the abandoned settlements, says the houses are unsuitable for their needs: "We're not looking for American housing where you have a backyard and a front yard and a tennis court. We would rather they demolished them."

"The problem is, these settler homes are small and a very poor use of the available land," says Ragheb Attallah, the chief planner for Khan Yunis council. "Palestinians have big families and they need two or three stories."

Jewish settlers account for less than 1 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip but control about 20 percent of its land. While Gush Katif residents live in middle-class homes with lawns, parks and ready access to the beach, Palestinians are crowded into Khan Yunis, where roads, sewerage and homes are often in a deplorable state.

The Palestinian Authority fears that desperate families from Khan Yunis and neighboring Rafah will move in to the empty homes and it will be hard to get them out again. Some Palestinians fear that some of their political leaders will grab the settler properties for themselves.

"I think the land now under Israeli control is very important for the development of Khan Yunis and Rafah," says the Palestinian local government minister, Khalid Kawasmi, a member of the committee that will decide how to use the settlements. "It will help provide areas for construction and economic development, mainly by using the land for agriculture and the beach for recreation and tourism."

Besides the housing, hundreds of acres of highly profitable greenhouses the Palestinians will inherit also pose a problem. The settlers produce cut flowers and fruit and vegetables, mostly sold in Europe in contracts with supermarkets. The United States plans a 50 million-pound aid program to help run the greenhouses, but the Palestinians, from bitter experience, know they will still be hostage to Israeli control of the Gaza border. Palestinians who already produce cut flowers say that to export them they are forced to use an Israeli cartel that pays less than market value.

There is another factor that has emerged since the 1980s, when Israelis and Palestinians mingled on Gaza's beaches -- that of Islamist groups imposing their morality. "I don't think next summer we will see women topless on the beaches in Gaza," says Salah Abdel Shafi, a prominent Gaza City economist.

By Chris McGreal

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