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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 May, 2005, 20:39 GMT 21:39 UK
Envoy holds first talks on Gaza
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

James Wolfensohn (L) and Mahmoud Abbas
Mr Wolfensohn [L] met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
The international community's new envoy to aid Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has had his first meeting with Palestinian leaders.

James Wolfensohn said he was impressed by the Palestinians' plans for Gaza's economy in the aftermath of the pullout scheduled for a few months' time.

Mr Wolfensohn is representing what is known as the Middle East Quartet - the US, European Union, Russia and UN.

He met Palestinian leaders in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Sunday.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said the meeting with the outgoing World Bank chief was "very fruitful".

Settler housing

Close to 1.5m Palestinians live crammed into the Gaza Strip.

It is only 40km (25 miles) long and one of the world's most crowded places.

At the moment around 7,000 Israeli settlers are occupying about a quarter of it.

Melon growing in the Gaza strip
Hothouse growing will be a key economic sector in Gaza

The Palestinians desperately need the space that the Israelis will vacate.

The Palestinians also look set to inherit the hi-tech hothouse farming projects that the settlers have developed.

That will do a little to provide jobs and ease the poverty of a few, but how profitable the farms will be will depend on how freely they are allowed to export their produce.

The Israelis will continue to control all of Gaza's borders.

It is not yet clear what will happen to the hundreds of homes that the settlers leave.

They are European-style suburban bungalows surrounded by gardens and designed for small families.

But many Gazan families have eight, nine or 10 children.

If the vacated settlements are to be used for housing they will need to be redeveloped.

Only high-density, high-rise blocks could begin to address Gaza's chronic housing shortage.

The Israeli government dreads the thought of its enemies in Palestinian militant groups like Hamas triumphantly taking possession of what used to be the homes of Israeli families.

It is possible that the army will bulldoze all of the settlement housing before it leaves.

If the homes are left standing, Palestinian officials acknowledge that there is a real danger angry crowds will loot them of their doors and pipes and tiles as soon as the army pulls out.

In Palestinian eyes, the settlements are among the most hated symbols of nearly 40 years of Israeli occupation.


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