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Anxiety sets in over fate of Gaza homes

GUSH KATIF, GAZA STRIP

eon Benhamo braces to give up his home of 16 years this summer, he's having nightmares not only about moving day, but the day after.

The 45-year-old insurance salesman figures it will be the morning after Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that the pain of leaving will be replaced by the humiliation of what many here view as defeat at the hands of the enemy.

Mr. Benhamo and his family moved to this seaside settlement from Jerusalem in 1989. He said they did so not because of ideology, but because he and his wife didn't want to raise their children in the city, and they fell in love with Gush Katif -- the largest Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza. For three of the couple's five children, it's the only home they've known.

That could end this summer, if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon follows through on his commitment to unilaterally end Israel's 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip by pulling out 8,000 Jewish settlers. While some have vowed to resist the so-called "disengagement" plan, Mr. Benhamo said he and many others are willing to go peacefully, as long as the government provides compensation and a place for them to move to, preferably en masse.

But after being shot by Palestinian gunmen on his way home from a trip to Tel Aviv three years ago -- he was hit by four bullets, leaving him with a partially paralyzed right hand -- Mr. Benhamo said it's impossible to accept that the same people who attacked him that night could soon move into his family's home. He'd rather see it bulldozed.

"It's hard to know that your house will be torn down. But it's even harder to know that your enemies, the terrorists who shot at you, will get your home," he said.

"It's hard to think of disengagement, knowing the TV networks will show the terrorists jumping up and down on our houses."

The fight over what happens to the clay-roofed houses after an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has put settler leaders and the Palestinian Authority in the unfamiliar position of siding with each other, albeit for dramatically different reasons, against Mr. Sharon's government.

The current plan calls for synagogues to be removed, as well as the bodies of those buried in cemeteries on the settlements. But Mr. Sharon wants to hand the settlers' homes over, intact, to the Palestinians. In addition to realizing that television images of Israeli bulldozers demolishing perfectly good homes in the impoverished Gaza Strip would be a public-relations disaster, the Israeli government is hoping the World Bank will provide compensation for the transfer.

But after initially embracing the idea, the PA this week reversed its position and said it no longer wants the houses.

"I will tell the Israelis to demolish all of them and even take all the rubble with you, because this is our firm position -- to demolish these houses because we do not want to live in them," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told the Voice of Peace radio station.

Analysts say the PA reversed its direction because it realized there was no remotely equitable way to hand out 1,500 posh houses amid the poverty and overpopulation of the Gaza Strip. Gaza is one of the most densely populated stretches on the planet, with approximately 1.3 million people packed into just 363 square kilometres.

The Jewish settlers make up just a fraction of 1 per cent of Gaza's population, but live on about one-fifth of the land area. Most of their homes have sizable back yards and sea views, while the Palestinians living in the surrounding refugee camps reside in cramped apartment blocks on garbage-strewn streets.

The PA said that instead of compensating the Israelis for homes that were illegally built on occupied land, the Work Bank should fund projects that would see the land redeveloped in a way that suits Gaza's needs.

It's unclear what will happen if Mr. Sharon goes through with his plan to pull the settlers out and leave the homes standing. The PA insists the Israeli government should front the estimated $20-million cost of demolishing the homes.

Palestinian leaders are worried that if the houses are left standing, desperate refugee families will move in and become difficult to remove.

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