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Israel Contradicts Rice Over Houses Abandoned in Withdrawal from Gaza

By Steven Erlanger
THE NEW YORK TIMES


JERUSALEM

After her trip here last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced on June 19 that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to demolish the 1,600 or so houses in Israel’s settlements in Gaza, with the Palestinians to be paid to clear away the rubble.

But a senior Israeli official says there is no such agreement, his government has yet to decide whether to demolish the houses and the Israelis and Palestinians continue to disagree over what might happen to the rubble.

More likely, he said, given the political sensitivity of the issue, Israel will simply avoid making a decision and leave the houses. He said Rice may have been misinformed by overeager officials, and what started as a hazy agreement in principle is foundering over specifics.

Sean McCormick, a State Department spokesman, responded on Tuesday, saying in a telephone interview: “The agreement on the principles announced by the secretary stands. I understand the two sides are working on the details of implementing the agreement.”

The confusion is a prime example of the crucial decisions left unmade only six weeks before Israel is to pull nearly 9,000 settlers out of Gaza and 600 out of four small settlements in the northern West Bank. It also shows the need for a strong U.S. presence in the negotiations that is currently missing, critics of the Bush administration say.

Muhammad Dahlan, the Palestinian minister in charge of coordinating the civilian side of the disengagement, is both angry and astonished. “With 45 days to go, we can’t get an answer from the Israelis on any serious question,” he said in an interview on Saturday in his Gaza City office. “They say they want to coordinate, but to every question we ask, we cannot get an answer.”

The senior Israeli official, when told about Dahlan’s complaint, said simply, “He’s right.”

The Israeli military and civilian bureaucracy, seeking a balance between leaving Gaza entirely and trying to maintain customs and security control over its boundaries, has been busily debating issues while the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon itself is split, he said.

“There is a real tension between our desire to control and our desire not to be responsible for Gaza,” said the official, who is involved in supervising all aspects of the Gaza withdrawal. He agreed to speak freely only if his name were not used because of the extreme sensitivity of the negotiations.

He has a list of some 10 major and still undecided issues about the withdrawal, including Dahlan’s urgent questions about how Palestinian workers and Palestinian products, both manufactured and agricultural, will be able to move in good time between Gaza and Egypt and Gaza and Israel, and thus to the West Bank and the rest of the world.