The Arab property tycoon, the Israeli settlements and a clever plan to boost Gaza

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The Independent Online

The Arab businessman responsible for one of the world's most ambitious urban construction projects is actively seeking to buy and redevelop land and homes to be evacuated by Gaza's 7,500 Jewish settlers later this year.

The Arab businessman responsible for one of the world's most ambitious urban construction projects is actively seeking to buy and redevelop land and homes to be evacuated by Gaza's 7,500 Jewish settlers later this year.

Mohamed Ali al-Alabbar, chairman of the $7bn (£3.7bn) company Emaar Properties, has begun negotiations with Ariel Sharon's office and the Palestinian Authority over his plan for what his supporters claim could transform much of Gaza, ravaged by more than four years of conflict and economic collapse, after Israel's planned disengagement.

Mr Alabbar, the driving force behind the huge effort to turn Dubai into the tourism, leisure and business hub of the Gulf, is asking Mr Sharon to reverse his earlier decision to raze the settlers' homes after withdrawal and sell them intact to his company for tens of millions of dollars. In return, Mr Alabbar would receive building contracts for the land vacated by the settlers.

His plans are said to include beachside tourism development as well as high-rise housing when the Palestinian territory, one of the most overcrowded and impoverished in the world, expands into the sector occupied by the 21 Jewish settlements, roads and military posts protecting it - about a fifth of the area of the Strip.

Supporters of the plan - including Shimon Peres, the Deputy Prime Minister in the new coalition and the Labour leader - hope that Mr Sharon will ask ministers to reconsider the previous cabinet's decision to bulldoze the settlers' private homes. So far, the Israeli Prime Minister has asked Ilan Cohen, the director general of his office, to examine the security and other implications of the overall renewal plan.

Mr Alabbar, who is also director general of the Dubai government's Department of Economic Development, held talks with Mr Cohen - and briefly met Mr Sharon this week - as well as holding detailed discussions with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia - both of whom are said to be impressed by the plans.

The Israeli cabinet is expected to give the go-ahead to the disengagement plan tomorrow. The talks held in Jerusalem and Ramallah by Mr Alabbar - whose Dubai projects include the world's tallest building and the world's biggest shopping centre - were arranged by Ephraim Sneh, a Labour Knesset member and former Israeli minister. Mr Sneh said yesterday that what motivated the Dubai developer "was to assist his Palestinian brothers".

Mr Sneh said Emaar had earned $700m last year and was not a "charitable organisation" but added Mr Alabbar "definitely does not come to Gaza for the purpose of making money. He is not intending to lose money either but he wants to invest every penny he may gain there in Gaza. He is motivated by idealistic motives and not by the natural desire of businessmen to make more money." Mr Sneh, who believes reversing the decision to destroy the homes would trigger international good will, acknowledged that "so far" Mr Sharon had not changed the previous decision. He added: "I think the involvement of Mr Alabbar and his readiness to acquire the assets Israel will leave, under certain conditions, opens the door to his reconsidering."

Mr Sneh said, however, that Mr Alabbar was keen to press ahead with development plans whether the homes were sold to him or not and that Mr Abbas and Mr Qureia, whom he had joined Mr Alabbar in meeting, had been "delighted" that he "has come to assist the Palestinians". Assuming that he acquired the settlers' homes he would use "professional considerations" to decide what to do with them. "If he thinks they should be levelled he would level them, if he thinks they can be used, they will be used."

Mr Sneh dismissed previously expressed fears that the settlers' houses could find their way into the hands of PA leaders, saying that Mr Abbas was determined the property that Israel has said it is ready to hand over intact to an international party - would belong "to the whole Palestinian people".

Ra'anan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman, said Mr Alabbar was seeking to buy land for "urban renewal" and "reconstruction of other houses" and indicated Israel had been concerned the settlers' properties should not fall into the hands of "terrorist groups".

He added: "We have to check the details to make certain the property doesn't fall into unwanted hands." He said the consent of the PA would be need but that the Israeli government was willing to consider his overall proposals.

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