Israel approves compensation for settlers uprooted from Gaza

Monday, October 25, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Cabinet approved a compensation plan Sunday for settlers who will be uprooted by Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, handing the prime minister an important victory two days before a showdown in parliament over the pullout.

Meanwhile, a team of Tunisian doctors examined Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- who is recovering from the flu -- and pronounced him "OK," Sunday despite speculation he might be suffering something more serious.

In southern Gaza, Israeli aircraft and tanks launched a series of strikes in the Khan Younis refugee camp late Sunday and early today that killed five Palestinians and wounded 23 others.

Violence in Gaza has increased in the months since Sharon announced his "unilateral disengagement" plan to pull out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements next year.

The Cabinet approved compensation program, which passed in a 13-6 vote, is a key part of Sharon's withdrawal plan. The victory, though expected, gave Sharon important momentum in the run-up to a far more important test Tuesday, when the Knesset votes for the first time on the entire withdrawal plan. Sharon also is expected to win that vote, but he needs a strong majority to marginalize his opponents.

"The train has left the station, the implementation is under way," government spokesman Raanan Gissin said of Sharon's plan. "After the Knesset vote on Tuesday we will be in an irreversible process."

Even if Sharon wins Tuesday's vote, parliament and the Cabinet will have to vote at least once more -- and perhaps several more times -- to approve actual evacuations, giving the plan's highly organized opponents more chances to torpedo it.

Sharon's government also might fall on other issues, including the budget, which could deal a possibly fatal blow to the withdrawal plan.

Sunday's Cabinet vote endorsed guidelines for compensating the estimated 8,800 settlers slated to be forced from their homes next year.

The plan would pay affected settler families $200,000 to $350,000 in compensation. Sharon hopes settlers will accept cash advances -- which could total up to one-third of the final compensation payout -- to leave well ahead of the official evacuation, heading off confrontations between settlers and troops.

The Cabinet also approved penalties, including prison terms, for settlers who resist evacuation orders. The guidelines will be written into a bill and sent to parliament.

The disengagement plan, which would mark the first time Israel pulled down Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza since capturing those territories in 1967, has bitterly divided Sharon's Likud Party.

Sharon says his plan is necessary to boost Israel's security after four years of fighting with the Palestinians. The pullout, combined with a West Bank barrier under construction, also would enable Israel to strengthen its hold on large settlement blocs in the West Bank, where most settlers live, Sharon said.

Jewish settlers and their allies in the government accuse Sharon of caving in to Palestinian violence and fear the withdrawal will be the first step in a larger pullback.

Meanwhile, an internal Israeli government assessment obtained Sunday by The Associated Press found that even after a pullout, Israel will be considered the occupying power in Gaza and will remain legally responsible for the territory.

"We must be aware that the disengagement does not necessarily exempt Israel from responsibility in the evacuated territories," the study by legal experts from the Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry and the military said.

Since Israel would maintain control over Gaza's border crossings, coastline and airspace, international law will continue to hold the Jewish state responsible for the territory, the report said.

However, Israel could eventually give up these controls if Palestinians stop launching attacks from Gaza, Sharon told the Cabinet on Sunday.

"If the situation improves, we can leave ... these other areas because I also don't want responsibility for Gaza," officials at the closed-door meeting quoted Sharon as saying.

The study has been submitted to Sharon's National Security Council, which is responsible for implementing the withdrawal.

Also Sunday, a team of five Tunisian doctors briefly examined the 75-year-old Arafat. The group was expected to finish tests on the Palestinian leader today and give a full report on his health.

Palestinian officials said Arafat was suffering from influenza but was recovering after more than a week of illness.

Arafat was laughing and appeared healthy at another meeting with Palestinian officials later Sunday that photographers were allowed to observe briefly.

Arafat's health has been the subject of intense speculation, partly because of the tremor in his lips and hands, considered a possible symptom of Parkinson's disease. Last year, Arafat suffered from gall stones, and his aides denied rumors he had stomach cancer.

Late Sunday, Israeli aircraft and tanks struck the Khan Younis refugee camp, fired three missiles at Palestinians in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza, killing two security officers and injuring five, Palestinian medical officials said. Witnesses said all the casualties had been wearing uniforms and carrying automatic weapons.

The Israeli army said it was targeting armed men who were moving toward Israeli soldiers, preparing to attack.

A fourth missile killed another man, who the military said was preparing to plant a bomb in the path of Israeli troops. Another Palestinian was killed in a fifth missile strike early today; the army said it fired on a group of at least four people with explosive devices.

Later a tank fired a shell toward a group, which included militants, that gathered on the edge of the camp, killing a fifth person, Palestinian hospital officials said.

A total of 23 Palestinians were wounded in the violence, officials said.

Scores of Israeli armored vehicles, including tanks and bulldozers, edged into the camp and began demolishing some buildings early today, residents said. The army, which denied it had demolished buildings, said it was taking action in response to recent Palestinian mortar attacks on nearby Jewish settlements.

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