Gaza settlers agree to sell greenhouses

Property will be given to Palestinian Authority

August 13, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Farmers from the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip signed an agreement yesterday to sell most of their greenhouses to a private international fund, which in turn will hand them over to the Palestinian Authority.

The deal, reached just three days before the Israeli evacuation of the 21 settlements of Gaza is to begin, aims to preserve the settlements' primary agricultural asset for future Palestinian use. That could provide the impoverished territory with a much-needed economic boost after the handover.

The greenhouses use sophisticated techniques that were developed especially for Gaza's sandy soil and desertlike conditions. Many Palestinians are familiar with the growing methods used in the greenhouses from years spent working in them, although the settlements increasingly turned to Thai workers after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising nearly five years ago.

About one-quarter of the greenhouses have been dismantled and moved inside Israel by their owners. The $14 million deal covers the remaining 800 acres of greenhouses, which are owned by about 450 farmers.

The purchase is being made by the private Economic Cooperation Foundation, whose founders include Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The foundation raised private funds to procure the greenhouses, including a personal donation of $500,000 from James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who is a special Middle East envoy for the so-called quartet: the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

"It shows that with some determination, one can get to the point of a rational agreement beneficial to both settlers and Palestinians," said Stephen Cohen, a scholar with the New York-based Israel Policy Forum who helped broker the greenhouse deal.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, is moving to make final preparations for the start of the Gaza transfer. Beginning tomorrow, Israeli police will go on high alert, setting up roadblocks outside Gaza to prevent settler activists from flooding into the territory.

Up to 4,000 protesters from the West Bank, many of them members of extremist groups, are thought to have infiltrated Gaza in recent weeks to oppose the pullout. Some are holed up in tent camps; others have taken over homes of settlers who have already moved out.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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