Israel, Palestinians agree to demolish Gaza settler homes
JERUSALEM (AFP) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured an agreement from Israel and Palestinians for the homes of settlers to be razed after the pullout from the Gaza Strip, hailing the withdrawal as an historic opportunity for Middle East peace.
Wrapping up a brief tour of Israel and the West Bank that saw her meet leaders on both sides, Rice reiterated the need to work more closely over the pullout which should start in eight weeks.
She also had strong words of praise for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas over their efforts to bring an end to the bloodshed which has blighted the region for nearly five years.
But in what is likely to be seen as a major slight to Washington, the Israeli housing ministry announced it was seeking tenders to build 700 new homes in two West Bank settlements despite warnings by Rice not to "create facts on the ground".
Sharon welcomed Rice's efforts towards peace but Israeli officials admitted many differences were still to be resolved with the Palestinians over Gaza.
Rice said both sides had agreed the homes occupied by some 8,000 Jewish settlers would do little to address the housing needs of the 1.3 million Palestinians living in the occupied territory.
"The view is that there are better land uses for the Palestinians to better address their housing needs," she told a news conference.
"The important thing is that the parties want to work on this issue together."
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the houses could have remained standing. "It was their choice. If they (Palestinians) wanted them they could have had them," he told AFP.
The Palestinians' chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said they had always wanted the homes to be demolished.
"We have always stipulated our position that all such buildings should be demolished and the rubble taken away, in accordance with the international law," he told AFP.
Rice said the pullout was an historic opportunity to advance the wider peace process.
"We are now about to go through an historic step that could accelerate what is possible for us to do," she said.
After talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Saturday, Rice warned time was running out for both sides to step up their efforts to coordinate the withdrawal, initially envisaged by Sharon as a unilateral move.
Rice recognised the "courageous and difficult step" that Sharon was taking by undertaking the first Israeli pullout from occupied Palestinian territory.
She also praised what she saw as Abbas's determination for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and "deep concern about the future of his people".
Abbas's late predecessor, Yasser Arafat, was completely boycotted by US President George W. Bush and branded a failure to his people.
Sharon agreed "a smooth and successful implementation of the plan in coordination with the Palestinians will help energize the political process under the roadmap".
The internationally drafted peace plan, which aims to create an independent Palestinian state of which the United States is a co-sponsor, has largely stalled since its 2003 launch.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that despite the agreement on the house demolitions, major differences remained, particularly over access in and out of Gaza.
Israel is planning to retain control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, concerned that arms smuggling to militant groups will multiply if it is controlled by the Palestinians.
Negotiations are ongoing for Egypt to assume responsibility, with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit due here later Sunday.
"The critical issue now is the crossing points. Concern is a very mild description for what we feel," said the source.
A Palestinian militant and an Israeli were killed after a military post along the border was ambushed.
Sharon is hoping that a voluntary pullout will enable Israel to entrench its settlements in the West Bank.
Before her arrival, Rice warned Israel against trying "to create facts on the ground" by expanding settlements.
However as she was leaving the country, the Israeli housing ministry announced that it would seek tender offers at the end of the year for building 700 new homes in the West Bank settlements of Maale Adumim and Beitar Eilit.
Rice was to head to Jordan later in the day on the second leg of her first swing through the Middle East.
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