Israel tastes bitter fruit of the Gaza settlements

The eviction of settlers from the Gaza Strip has created a dilemma for the authorities: what to do with the farms they will be leaving behind. Donald Macintyre reports
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The Independent Online

Moti Sender still prays for a miracle. Although the Israeli government plans to move him from his home and nursery in the Jewish coastal Gaza settlement of Gannei Tal in little more than two months' time, he has just planted 5,000 myrtle shrubs and may plant another 45,000 more.

Moti Sender still prays for a miracle. Although the Israeli government plans to move him from his home and nursery in the Jewish coastal Gaza settlement of Gannei Tal in little more than two months' time, he has just planted 5,000 myrtle shrubs and may plant another 45,000 more.

His faith - defying all the signs that the evacuation will happen as scheduled on 15 August - was increased by news last month of Ariel Sharon shouting at his officials to get on with building new homes inside Israel for the departing settlers. "When I hear Sharon screaming, I hear someone under pressure," claims the ever-optimistic Mr Sender.

When Mr Sender first arrived 27 years ago in this Palestinian territory seized from the Egyptians in the Six Day War, 10 years earlier, Gannei Tal was nothing but desert and sand dunes. Married with two young children, he had been head of the export branch of the Bank Mizrahi in Tel Aviv. "I was looking for a moshav [farming community] in a good area for a better quality of life. I looked all over the country and Gaza wasn't even our first choice. We didn't come for ideological reasons."

The ideology came later. His ancestors came from Lithuania to the Holy Land eight generations ago. "We are the true Palestinians," he says, defiantly. Asked whether he didn't always think he might one day have to leave, he gets up from his chair, takes a bible from the shelf, bangs it down on the table and exclaims: "This is my Kashun [deed of property entitlement]. This says to the Jews that Israel is your country, not that of the Arabs or anyone else.

"Look in the Book of Genesis, where God promised the land to the Jewish people. There is a divine mandate to settle the land of Israel, which belongs to the Jewish people in perpetuity."

Yet Mr Sender is also a highly successful entrepreneur. His 200,000 plants in greenhouses spread over three-and-half acres - the revenues and value of which he repeatedly refuses to quantify - are a high-tech operation, each one subject to computerised irrigation according to its individual needs. About 90 to 95 per cent of his produce is shipped to the Netherlands for the European -including UK--export market. "Over the years, we have developed a good reputation and demand for our produce," he says. "And now the government wants to come and rip it up."

But while others, such as the extremists and "hilltop youth" encamped in the disused Palm Beach hotel nearby, could yet resort to violence, Mr Sender won't.

He hasn't personally opened negotiations with the government though he is watching the discussions about the settlers' future closely, as befits a man who runs the semi-official settlers' website http://english.katif.net.

He remains bitterly angry about the decision, adamant it will lead to more violence because he sees it as a surrender to the Palestinian militants who have been attacking Gush Katif with mortars for more than four years.

But he claims: "If I thought it would bring peace I would be the first to pack my bags." As it is, "I have to go if we're forced out. I'm not going to lie down in front of the bulldozers. I will hug my wife and children, cry with them, and leave. We are not crazy people. If we have to leave, we want all the money. I am 54, with three married children.

"I have to reconstruct my life and my farm somewhere else."

But Mr Sender would still rather see his house and nursery destroyed rather than be given to the Palestinians "as a prize" for, as he sees it, driving them out.

Proudly he shows us round his house, with its large ranch-style living room, five upstairs bedrooms and capacious play room.

It was substantially extended in 2000, just when Bill Clinton was making vain efforts to negotiate a final peace deal at Camp David - one which would have meant an end to the Gaza settlements. He consulted a local rabbi who presciently advised him to go ahead. He will, no doubt, receive the maximum $350,000 (£180,000) compensation for the house. But, he adds: "I don't want to give the people who destroyed our life our home."

And the greenhouses? He will get compensation for the fixed assets, on average between 60 and 70 per cent of the businesses, though settlers' leaders are in the courts seeking total compensation for farmers' nurseries.

Wouldn't he rather see it handed over as a going concern? "I'm not going to be the one to destroy it. But I hope the government will be smart enough to destroy it."

He would countenance handing it over to the World Bank if it meant receiving total compensation but adds: "My feelings are clear. I don't want to give [the Palestinians] a present."

He now looks likely to get his way as far as the business is concerned. Less than three months before the final deadline, the military mechanics of compulsory evacuation have been planned down to the last detail. Yet some of the biggest questions about what will be left behind are still totally unresolved.

Greenhouses such as Mr Sender's are worth $200m a year in revenue. In theory, they could, if retained, be a huge boost to the stricken Palestinian economy in Gaza. But the compensation system constructed by Israel puts formidable legal and technical obstacles in the way of these being transferred to the Palestinians.

And anyway, according to Saleh Abdul Shafi, the prominent Gaza City economist who acts as a consultant to the technical commissions set up by PA minister Mohammed Dahlan to plan for post-disengagement Gaza. "We should not take it for granted that, even if we take over these assets, we will get that sort of revenue."

If anything that is an understatement. First, as Mr Abdul Shafi points out, some 10,000 Palestinian greenhouses in Gaza already produce a 60 per cent surplus because of the huge difficulties of exporting goods through the security cordon surrounding Gaza, even to the West Bank, let alone abroad.

It's why, dumped on the internal market, tomatoes are often a mere 6p per kg in Gaza or why Palestinian nurserymen in southern Gaza, according to Omar Shaban, another economist, "are throwing flowers in to the street".

Mr Abdel Shafi agrees:"If you add to this capacity without solving the problem of access to markets, the assets merely become an added burden." Moreover, the problem could become more acute after disengagement. Amid stated Israeli concerns over security, prospects for building a new Gaza port - or rebuilding the airport - remain a distant prospect. But if, as Israeli officials believe he will, Ariel Sharon in time withdraws troops from the Egyptian-Gaza border, Gaza could at last have direct access to an Arab country.

But Israel is considering abrogating a customs union which allows goods to pass duty free between it and Gaza. It worries that arms and cheap Egyptian goods which could undercut Israeli manufacturers could be smuggled into Israel and the West Bank through a Palestinian controlled-border.

But that would not only further undermine Gaza's export potential through Israeli ports but also - crucially - cut it off from the economy of the West Bank, the larger portion of any intended Palestinian state. Without open borders, says Mr Shaban, "disengagement is a prison."

Shimon Peres, Israel's vice-Prime Minister, backed by the EU, is pressing the government to consider third party control of Palestinian external customs as a means of preserving the union - the Crown Agents and the Swiss agency SGS have been mentioned - but the hawkish Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been resisting.

Finally, the Palestinians have come up against a consistent Israeli failure to release lists of assets, ranging from businesses and houses to plans of the settlements' modern sewage, power lines and other infrastructure.

That makes it vastly more difficult to plan efficient land allocation for desperately needed housing, agriculture and tourism for which the unspoilt Gaza coast currently enjoyed by the settlers has great long-term, potential.

According to one senior Palestinian source, Israel has even been somewhat more forthcoming with Mohamed Ali al-Alabbar, the Dubai property magnate who could have a big role in Gaza redevelopment, than it has with the PA. Despite recent promises that information will at last be handed over, Mr Shaban said yesterday that a 10-page list of detailed questions submitted to Israel by the PA two weeks ago to help them prepare, had still not been answered.

"We could have built up some goodwill by giving more information earlier," admits one Israeli source. Which leaves the homes themselves. Against all intuition, it is Palestinian minister after minister who has said, like Mr Sender, they want Israel to destroy the houses. Israeli opinion increasingly leans towards handing them over intact to the Palestinians.

In the Israeli media, the issue has been treated as one of public relations. Television pictures of Israeli bulldozers destroying homes will be bad for the Sharon government; pictures of Hamas flags fluttering from the red-tiled roofs of the settlers' ample villas, let alone jubilant bands of Gazans marauding through will be bad for the Palestinians.

But that is only part of the story. The army doesn't want the extra time - up to three months - and risk involved in destroying the houses and, as they would surely be obliged to do under law, of clearing the rubble.

For the PA, the houses, mainly, though not exclusively, large and in gated California-style communities, could prove a major headache; unconvertible into badly-needed high density housing, an obstacle to efficient land use, from extraction of desperately needed water-to promoting productive agriculture. (8,000 settlers and their military protectors occupy 17 per cent of the land; 1.3 million Palestinians occupy the rest).

Convinced the Israeli cabinet will reverse its earlier decision to destroy the houses, Saleh Abdel Shafi acknowledges a real risk of looting and destruction. "Settlements are the biggest symbol of the occupation in the eyes of the people," he says.

"People are very emotional about this and there could be a spontaneous reaction."

To try to prevent that, he says, civic groups have prepared a campaign in schools and elsewhere to persuade the population "what Israel is leaving behind is the property of the Palestinian people, no longer of the enemy, and we have to protect it."

Mr Abdel Shafi acknowledges that one option, apart from the possibly inevitable one of the PA eventually destroying them, is for the PA to bring in revenue by selling them privately at market value. "But if that happens they have to be very careful," he says. "The process will have to be very transparent to ensure they don't simply become houses for senior PA security people or ministers."

That's just what Nehaya al- Hassanat 33, and her policeman husband, Jaber, 35 are afraid of. From the second floor of their home on the southern edge of Gaza City, they can clearly see the houses of the Netzarim settlement. As we talk, Nehaya points out an armed military convoy of two jeeps escorting three settler vehicles to Netzarim.

Both are convinced the Netzarim homes will got to PA officials or the Palestinian military. "The PA say it's for us but do you think they'll really give them to the people? I don't think so." she says: "If they aren't going to be given to the people, I'd rather they were demolished."

Three Israeli watchtowers are visible from their roof; the couple and their five children have regularly had to flee the house and take cover from Israeli shells in a disused railway embankment. Just three weeks ago, they say, they were obliged to plead with Hamas militants to stop launching rockets at Netzarim from the orange grove behind their house, for fear of fresh Israeli reprisals.

Mrs al-Hassanat has relatives a five-minute walk away, but because that means crossing the settlers' road, she has to make a two-hour round trip to visit them.

Are they looking forward to the day the settlers are gone? "For sure," says Mr al-Hassanat. "I will be very happy when they leave."

Which is why experts such as Mr Abdel Shafi are working flat out to overcome the problems Israel may leave behind in Gaza. For him, ending the occupation and the creation of a viable Palestinian state is a simple matter of justice. But he believes the US, in particular, is taking a much more "pragmatic" - he doesn't use the word "cynical"-view.

In effect, he says the international community is saying: "Prove you can make something out if it." If that is achieved, he suggests, Israel might finally come under real US pressure to return to negotiations. The corollary of that brutal international message is, "if you fail you don't deserve it." He adds: "I don't accept it but I have to deal with it."

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