Israel promises settlers a new town

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The Independent Online

The government of Israel has offered further significant concessions to Gaza's Jewish settlers - including a new municipality of their own - in the hope of averting a possibly violent confrontation when they are evacuated this summer.

Settlers' leaders are considering the proposals, which would house the largest group of 8,500 Gaza settlers together near an area of outstanding natural beauty on the southern Israeli coastline. Despite earlier reluctance, ministers have now told the settlers that they would meet their demand for a new municipality in Nitzanim, provided they can show that a critical mass of their followers will agree to go quietly in return.

Tzipi Livni, the Justice Minister, said that the government was prepared to guarantee "legislation and fast-track planning" to underpin what Ilan Cohen, the chief of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau, called "a very unique, very large solution".

So far just over 100 out of 1,500 families have agreed to make alternative housing and employment plans and negotiate compensation deals with the government. These will be worth between£100,000 and £160,000 per home.

Responding to growing fears by environmentalists that the plan could threaten a section of the coastline, Ms Livni told Army radio: "No one plans to put the settlers on the dunes."

The concession on a new local authority has also triggered criticism from the centre left, with the Labour Knesset member Avraham Shochat telling Israel Radio that the plan for a new regional council was a "shameful capitulation to the blackmail of the evacuees from the Gaza Strip".

Settlers had complained that the government had failed to provide alternative jobs for them when they were moved. Yair Sheleg, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that fears of losing employment were likely to be a factor in the desire for the new council, but the main reason was the fear of religious settlers that the education curriculum would be diluted if their children's schools were controlled by city municipalities.