U.S. Donors to Pay Departing Jews for Gaza Greenhouses

By GREG MYRE

New York Times

August 12, 2005

JERUSALEM, Aug. 12 - A consortium of wealthy Americans has put up $14 million to compensate Jewish settlers for their Gaza Strip greenhouses, and the facilities will be handed over to the Palestinians as soon as the Israelis leave, participants in the deal said Friday.

The unusual arrangement was put together by James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president and the current Middle East envoy for the Bush administration. Mr. Wolfensohn also contributed $500,000 of his own money.

"The arrangement gives a real opportunity for the Palestinians and makes the departure of Israelis from Gaza much easier," Mr. Wolfensohn said Friday in an interview. He added that he believed "the Palestinians are trying to make this a peaceful transition - at least the Palestinian Authority is."

The agreement, just four days before Israel is to begin evacuating settlers from Gaza, is intended keep valuable agricultural properties intact for Palestinian use.

Although Palestinians are eager to see the Israeli settlers go, the withdrawal could leave the Palestinians in even more dire economic straits, at least in the short term. About 3,500 Palestinians have worked in the greenhouses as employees of the Israeli settlers and would lose their jobs if the greenhouses are torn down. The greenhouses grow vegetables, spices, flowers and other produce that have become a major source of Israeli export income.

In addition, the Erez industrial zone on Gaza's northern border with Israel has been closed or limping along at partial capacity for the past couple years. It is not clear whether thousands of Palestinians will be able to continue working at factories there after the pullout.

Israel and Palestinian officials discussed the fate of greenhouses for months, but could not reach a solution. Even without an agreement, Palestinians would end up with the greenhouses. But Jewish settlers have complained that the Israeli government was not offering sufficient compensation, and they have threatened to dismantle or destroy computerized irrigation systems and other valuable equipment needed to keep the greenhouses running.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, were adamant that they would not allow official United States government assistance or international aid designated for the Palestinians to be used to compensate settlers.

Mr. Wolfensohn said that with the danger of the greenhouses being torn down, he turned to private donors to raise the money for the greenhouses - specifically about a half dozen wealthy individuals whom he declined to identify.

The donors are giving the money to the Aspen Institute, a private business and public policy advocacy group that set up a program to ease investments in Gaza and the West Bank about a year ago. Mr. Wolfensohn said that former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, a chairwoman of the institute's Middle East strategy group, and Walter Isaacson, the institute's president, helped assess the project and "gave comfort to donors who were concerned about giving to something they didn't know anything about."

"This is a win-win situation," said Boaz Karni, the treasurer of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a private Israeli group that also helped broker the deal. "On the Israeli side, the farmers will get more compensation. And the Palestinians will get something that could be a cornerstone of their economy in Gaza."

The American consortium worked through the Economic Cooperation Foundation, which signed an agreement with representatives of the Jewish settlers on Thursday, Mr. Karni said.

According to Mr. Karni, the agreement covers about 90 percent of the more than 1,000 acres of greenhouses in Gush Katif, the main settlement cluster in Gaza. However, some journalists who have been to the area recently say a good number of the greenhouses have already been at least partly dismantled.

Some Gaza farmers hope to rebuild them in Israel, while others say they oppose leaving them for Palestinians. It is unclear what percentage of the greenhouses are in working order, though some estimate it at around 50 percent.

The Palestinians say they have received limited information about the greenhouses and have some doubts about their economic viability.

The greenhouses were heavily subsidized by the Israeli government and may be beyond the means of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians say. The greenhouses consume large amounts of water in a territory where it is scarce.

Still, the Jewish farmers in Gaza, numbering several hundred, have been selling tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, spices and flowers, earning about $75 million annually, Mr. Karni said. The produce is sold in Israel and is also exported to Europe.

Farming was the largest single industry for the nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers who are to be removed, beginning next week, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan.

In an interview published Friday in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Mr. Sharon said Israel might eventually have to relinquish additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where the vast majority of settlers live. Mr. Sharon said that in the West Bank, the large settlement clusters would remain under Israeli control. But Israeli has more than 120 settlements there, many of them small and isolated.

Asked about the fate of several remote settlements, he said, "The question will arise at the last stage of negotiations with the Palestinians."

The Israeli leader also said he had no regrets about his decision to uproot the Gaza settlers, despite the fierce criticism it had generated among many right-wing Israelis. "It was clear to me that the initiative would not be accepted easily," Mr. Sharon said. "But the presence in Gaza with everything it entails, the price we are paying, had to end."

In Gaza City, meanwhile, the militant group Hamas reaffirmed that it would not surrender its weapons to the Palestinian Authority after Israel's withdrawal.

"This army will continue to defend our homeland as long as one inch of Palestine remains occupied," Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, told reporters.

Hamas has pledged to refrain from attacks against Israelis in Gaza during the pullout, but Dr. Zahar said he had rejected the call by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, for "one authority, one weapon."

Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting from Washington for this article.<'p>