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Last Updated: Friday, 1 April, 2005, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Israel to leave Gaza homes intact
Settler with child
Heavily armed settlers have vowed to resist any expulsion attempt
Israel will not demolish homes vacated by Jewish settlers when it withdraws from the Gaza Strip this summer, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said.

The statement appears to reflect a signficant change of policy on Mr Sharon's part.

Some voices on both sides have called for a total demolition of settlements.

Israeli security chiefs have meanwhile met settlers fighting the Gaza pullout to discuss how to avoid bloodshed during the planned eviction.

Heavily armed settler groups have vowed to resist Mr Sharon's plans to remove them from Gaza.

'Voluntary disarmament'

Speaking after meeting Israeli Security Minister Gideon Ezra and police chief Moshe Karadi, a leader of the Yesha settler organisation said both settlers and soldiers should disarm before any eviction attempt.

"There will be determined resistance and therefore we must not leave a gun in the hands of anyone - not a soldier nor a settler," Effi Eitam told Israeli television.

Netzarim settlement

"We do not want any weapons at all in the inner circle of evacuation," he said.

Mr Ezra, the security minister, has in turn said Israeli police will collect weapons that are handed in voluntarily but "will not confiscate settlers' firearms".

It is not clear if the two sides have reached an agreement.

Many of the settlers acquired their weapons from Israeli authorities who wanted to arm them against possible attack by Palestinian militants.

Homes stay intact

Israeli officials had initially said they would not leave behind any settlement structures intact in Gaza for fear they would be taken over by militants.

However, Mr Sharon's government appears to have altered its plans.

"I would be happy not to demolish communities [settlements]," the Israeli leader said on Friday.

"This requires coordination with the Palestinians".

The Israeli government has to demolish the houses and completely remove the rubble
Osama al-Farrah
Khan Yunis mayor

A military official quoted by Yediot Ahronot said religious buildings, synagogues and ritual bath-houses will be destroyed but homes will be left intact.

However, many Palestinians believe Israel should shoulder the burden of demolishing entire settlements, leaving the Palestinians free to use the land as they choose.

The mayor of the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis has been quoted as saying the "Israeli government has to demolish the houses and completely remove the rubble".

"If they don't do that, they will have to pay for the demolition," Osama al-Farrah said.

Almost 9,000 Jewish settlers are believed to inhabit some 20 heavily fortified enclaves in Gaza.

Estimates say the cost of demolishing these structures and removing the rubble could exceed $20m.

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