Israel prepares cash deal for settlers
Each family to receive $300,000 in compensation
Israel plans to pay an average of $300,000 per family in compensation to settlers who leave the Gaza Strip and will give swift cash advances to those who go voluntarily, government officials said on Friday.
The cash advances could be available by August under a draft proposal by a government committee working out the details of a Gaza pullout plan that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet has approved in principle, the officials said.
"Everything must be carried out in an orderly fashion and without panic," Israeli Justice Minister Yossef Lapid told Public Radio Friday.
"There will be a law on compensation and settlers have no reason to worry because nobody will be cheated," he said.
Payouts before a planned March 2005 Cabinet vote on whether to begin removing settlements could force a showdown between Sharon and hard-liners in his coalition, bringing it closer to collapse, political analysts said.
News on Wednesday that the committee was proposing voluntary evacuations begin in two months set Sharon on a collision course with the powerful settler lobby, which sees cash advances as an attempt to make settlers to go quietly and quickly.
Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for Gaza settlers, said most had signed a declaration refusing to leave or negotiate payouts.
Government officials estimated the average payout per household at $300,000, based on the number of family members and the size of agricultural plots.
Such a sum would be enough to buy a one-family house with a garden or a large apartment in many communities in Israel.
The total government bill - including a troop withdrawal from Gaza and removal of four West Bank settlements also scheduled to go - could come to more than $1.5 billion.
Israeli media reports said that Sharon hoped to push settler compensation legislation through Parliament by late July.
But it is unclear whether his government can last that long.
Sharon lost his parliamentary majority on Tuesday when two members of the pro-settler National Religious Party defected from his coalition.
The NRP has still to make a final decision on whether to stick by the prime minister. Its departure from the government would likely spur Sharon to seek a partnership with the pro-withdrawal Labor Party or force early elections.
Sharon's plan envisages the removal of all 21 settlements in Gaza, a sandy coastal strip where 7,500 settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians live, and four of 120 in the West Bank, home to some 230,000 settlers and 2.4 million Palestinians.
According to a copy of the committee's blueprint, settlers would have until Sept. 1, 2005 to move out before the army removed them by force. Those evicted by soldiers would get less compensation or none at all.
The military would then quit Gaza by Oct. 1, 2005.
Opponents of the uprooting of settlements call Sharon's plan to withdrawal a reward for "Palestinian terrorism" after more than three years of an uprising against Israeli occupation.
Sharon says removing settlements will bolster security and revive a stalled peace process.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians protested Friday, holding noon prayers on a dirt road in the West Bank town of Al-Ram, on the edge of East Jerusalem, to bring attention to the recent construction the part of the West Bank barrier that cuts through the town and would split its residents. - Reuters, AFP