Rice endorses plan to demolish settlers' homes

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Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed that more than 1,200 suburban settler homes will be razed when Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip in August.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed that more than 1,200 suburban settler homes will be razed when Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip in August.

Under a plan endorsed in weekend talks with Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, Israel will demolish the low-density buildings and the Palestinians will clear the rubble and construct high-density housing more appropriate to the needs of the 1.3 million Gazans, many of whom now live in squalid refugee camps.

Demolition was the Palestinians' choice, Israeli officials stressed. The plan is seen as serving everyone's interests. Israeli troops won't have to stay for months hauling out the debris. And hundreds of Palestinians will get work. Ms Rice offered to find the international financing needed. The two sides promised to co-ordinate the disengagement so that the settlers and the army leave without being harassed by Palestinian gunmen.

Israel also undertook to review security checks at border crossings so that "Palestinian goods and people should flow in and out of Gaza at a level that will allow for economic revival to begin". Ms Rice said the donor community would provide technical and financial support.

The idea is to install sophisticated sensors to scan trucks quickly. The vehicles would not have to wait for hours so that, as one Palestinian minister complained recently, goods take longer to get from Ashdod to Gaza than from China to the Israeli port.

Although the details have still to be negotiated, Ms Rice flew home in an optimistic mood after separate talks with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President.

"I saw a commitment on the part of the Israeli government to make the disengagement work," she said, adding that Mr Abbas had shown a strong commitment to negotiation as the best way forward for the Palestinians.

"If the parties do this well, I'm quite confident that the level of trust ... will be enhanced." She hailed Mr Sharon's plan as an important step to progress on the international road-map vision of "two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security." However, she declined to be drawn on a timetable.

Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas will meet tomorrow for the first time since their Sharm el-Sheikh summit four months ago. The Israeli leader continues to demand that the Palestinian security forces crack down on the militias as a condition for resuming peace talks.

Mr Sharon said: "I intend to ask [Mr Abbas] how it can be possible to make progress towards the road-map, what he intends to do on the various security issues and how he intends to act to dismantle the terrorist organisations."

As if to prove his argument, gunmen firing anti-tank missiles killed an Israeli sergeant-major and wounded two soldiers yesterday on the Philadelphi corridor separating Gaza from Egypt.

Islamic Jihad and the Abu Rish Brigades, an offshoot of Mr Abbas's Al Fatah, claimed responsibility. On the West Bank, soldiers at an Israeli roadblock arrested a Palestinian youth carrying five pipe bombs.