Israel mulls U-turn on destroying Gaza homes

Israel looked set on Monday for a U-turn by deciding not to destroy the homes of settlers due to be uprooted from Gaza, as a special unit was established to combat extremist violence threatening the pull-out.

Meanwhile, in the fallout from Friday’s suicide attack in Tel Aviv, Israeli officials briefed European Union ambassadors on Syria’s alleged involvement, as Israel stepped up its campaign to blacklist the Lebanese-based Shi’ite movement Hezbollah.

Previously determined to raze about 2 000 buildings in the Gaza Strip when Israeli troops and Jewish settlers evacuate the territory later this year, the official in charge of the pull-out advocated they be left intact.

“I heartily recommend not destroying these houses and coming up with an arrangement by which they are handed over to officials,” national security council chief General Giora Eiland told public radio.

Destroying them will “prolong the disengagement operation from the Gaza Strip while, on the contrary, we want to limit our presence in the region to a minimum”, he said.

Threats uttered by virulent right-wingers calling for violent resistance to the pull-out have forced Israel’s justice ministry to set up a special unit to investigate incitement.

Sharon alone has received 70 death threats in the past three months over the Gaza plan, according to the outgoing head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, Avi Dichter.

The premier, who was once seen as the ultimate champion of the settlers, revealed earlier this month he had hired security guards to protect the grave of his late wife after extremists threatened to dig up her body.

“Our policy with respect to crimes of violence is one of zero tolerance,” public prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who will head the new unit, told army radio.

In Jerusalem, EU ambassadors were briefed by Israeli intelligence on Monday on Syria’s alleged involvement in the Tel Aviv bombing, claimed by the Islamic Jihad militant group, whose leadership is based in Damascus.

“We see Syria as responsible by allowing those extremists to have their headquarters there, their training camps there and to give them all the assistance that they’re asking,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Syria has rejected accusations that Damascus had anything to do with the bombing, which cast a shadow over tentative steps towards Middle East peace after more than four years of violence.

As the death toll rose on Monday to five from the attack, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said it would be reckless to let a chance for peace fade.

“We have an opportunity and it would be irresponsible if we, the Israelis, or the world allow it to slip away,” he was quoted as telling Britain’s The Independent newspaper on the eve of a London conference on Palestinian reform.

Abbas insisted that suicide attacks “will not be tolerated” and said the Palestinians are “exerting 100% effort” to end anti-Israeli violence.

The European Commission pressed Abbas to protect the fragile peace process by preventing further violence, while urging Israel to help keep the situation calm.

“Clearly, [Abbas] should make efforts to seek to prevent such incidents from occurring, and that those who have committed such acts should be brought to justice,” a spokesperson said in Brussels.

“We call on both the [Palestinian] president and the [Israeli] prime minister to continue what they have begun, to cooperate in combating those who choose terrorism,” she added.

Israel has warned there will be no progress in the peace process until the Palestinians crack down on militants, threatening to halt the planned release of 400 prisoners in the aftermath of the bombing.

In a bid to step up its campaign against Hezbollah, Sharon pressed visiting Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht to persuade the European Union to blacklist the Lebanese-based movement.

Israel has long accused Hezbollah of funding attacks by Palestinian militant groups. A foreign ministry spokesperson said it has “not been ruled out totally” that the militia was behind Friday’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.—Sapa-AFP

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