Gaza envoy seeks agreement on settlers' homes

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The Independent Online

James Wolfensohn, the international community's new special envoy on Gaza disengagement, will seek to galvanise Israel and the Palestinians into negotiating on the assets left behind when Jewish settlers are evacuated this summer.

James Wolfensohn, the international community's new special envoy on Gaza disengagement, will seek to galvanise Israel and the Palestinians into negotiating on the assets left behind when Jewish settlers are evacuated this summer.

Mr Wolfensohn, the outgoing president of the World Bank, is expected to start his new role by focusing on the urgent task of securing an agreement on the disposal of businesses and houses belonging to settlers.

A crucial part of the Australian-born investment banker's role will be to re-start dormant co-ordination talks between the two sides and explore how the World Bank and other international agencies can act as an honest broker in the transfer of homes and thriving businesses. Mr Wolfensohn leaves his World Bank job at the end of next month.

There have been indications that Mr Sharon may be prepared to abandon his original plan to destroy the homes of the 8,000 settlers at the end of the process if the Palestinian Authority agrees to co-ordinate security and other aspects of the withdrawal. And Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, said he will argue against their destruction. He is proposing that buildings such as synagogues should be physically moved.

The Israeli cabinet has yet to decide over the next month whether to keep the homes intact and there may be opposition to Mr Mofaz's proposal by ministers reluctant to hand them over to the PA or see them fall into the hands of militants. Mr Mofaz's position reflects awareness of the wave of adverse international reaction if the homes are razed, particularly when the homes of more than 2,000 Palestinian families in Gaza have been demolished by the Israeli military.

The US has strongly opposed the destruction of the settlers' homes and Mr Wolfensohn is likely to explore the possibility of the World Bank acting as a trustee to smooth the handover and help to ensure the homes are properly allocated if they remain.

He is also expected to consider issues of purchase or compensation for the businesses and greenhouses owned by 340 of the 1,100 families in the Gaza settlement block Gush Katif, to help stimulate the Palestinian economy in Gaza.

A Mediterranean climate, sandy soil, and cheap labour have helped to turn the plants, flowers and vegetables into a flourishing multimillion-dollar business, serving the Israeli and export markets; 90 per cent of insect-free vegetables for the ultra-orthodox Israeli market are grown in Gaza.

The PA has been wary of being drawn into disengagement talks that exclude the wider political dimension envisaged in the road map, with Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, who is frequently at odds with President Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly especially resistant.

Mr Wolfensohn's appointment was welcomed by the senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said the banker was "a man of honour, dignity and experience". Mark Regev, Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, said: "It is in our interests that Gaza disengagement is a success and if Mr Wolfensohn can help us ensure it is, that's good."

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