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Rice announces agreement to raze Gaza settlers' homes

Palestinians, Israel discussing post-pullout plan

JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed that hundreds of Jewish homes in the Gaza Strip will be demolished when Israel evacuates settlers this summer.

Rice's announcement appeared to settle a debate over what to do with the houses after Israel abandons 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four others in the northern West Bank. Some Israelis, including Vice Premier Shimon Peres, advocated handing over the homes to Palestinians. But Palestinian officials say leaving the single-family dwellings intact would not ease the housing shortage in Gaza, one of the most cramped places on Earth.

Rice spoke about the decision on the settlers' homes as she mentioned a broader agreement on a ''statement of principles" to govern the Gaza pullout. The agreement marks an important, if incremental, step in advancing the withdrawal, which the Bush administration sees as the best chance for breathing new life into the US-backed peace plan known as the road map.

She said the two parties agreed the withdrawal should be free of violence and provide for the passage of Palestinians and goods between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a matter of central importance to the Palestinian leadership.

Rice repeatedly emphasized the importance that a Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip be economically viable and offer hope for a better life among the 1.3 million Palestinians who reside there.

Her remarks reflected the administration's position that providing the opportunity for a better future to young Arabs is key to reducing the anti-American hatred that helps fuel terrorism.

Rice, finishing a two-day visit, said both sides agreed that about 1,600 settler houses -- US-style stucco homes with red-tile roofs and small yards -- should be destroyed to allow the Palestinians to build high-rise structures better suited to easing crowding.

''The parties will work toward a plan for destruction and cleanup," she said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to meet tomorrow, and the houses issue will probably be on the agenda.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the current understanding calls for Israel to raze the homes and for the Palestinians to dispose of the debris. Israel or a third party would pay for the cleanup, estimated by US officials yesterday to cost $50 million to $60 million. The cleanup could mean hundreds of jobs for Palestinians. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is proposing that the debris be used to build a Palestinian seaport in Gaza, according to news reports.

Rice said the two sides must work out what to do with hundreds of Israeli greenhouses around the settlements. The crops could boost the Palestinian economy in Gaza after Israel exits.

In other developments, Israel Radio said gunmen believed to be Palestinian killed an Israeli and wounded another today in an ambush on their car in the West Bank, according to Reuters. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack outside the Jewish settlement of Hermesh. Also, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian fighter were killed yesterday during an attack on Israeli troops in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border. Two other Israeli soldiers were wounded in the attack. Islamic Jihad and the Abu El-Rish Brigades jointly claimed responsibility, saying they were responding to what they called Israeli violations of the cease-fire.

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