updated 3/2/2005 8:42:16 PM ET 2005-03-03T01:42:16

Israel is negotiating to hand over greenhouses in Gaza settlements to Palestinians after its planned withdrawal in the summer, an official said Wednesday, and the military scrapped a contentious plan to dig a deep, wide moat along the Gaza-Egypt border.

Yonatan Bassi, head of Israel’s Disengagement Authority, told reporters that peppers and tomatoes grown in the greenhouses could help feed the 1.3 million Palestinians packed into the narrow coastal strip. Luxury items such as flowers and strawberries would be exported, mainly to the European Union.

“Israel is negotiating now with America and with others, with the international community, to leave all the infrastructure of the greenhouses to the Palestinians through a third party,” Bassi said, without giving further details.

Study finds malnutrition
A study published last year by the United Nations and the United States Agency for International Development said seven out of 10 Palestinians were living on insufficient food, and the United Nations put unemployment in Gaza at more than 22 percent.

A USAID official in Tel Aviv said 3,000 Palestinians were working in settlement greenhouses and turning them over to Palestinian ownership could create a further 7,000 jobs.

With each Gaza laborer supporting about eight other people, that could help an estimated 63,000 people.

Bassi also said all the residents of the largest Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim, could move to Nitzan, a failed community between Ashdod and Ashkelon on Israel’s southern coastline. A contractor who started building the community ran into liquidity problems. Bassi said the state could buy it back and offer it to the settlers. About 2,600 of Gaza’s 8,500 settlers live in Neve Dekalim.

To stay or resist
Bassi said most of the Gaza settlers would accept compensation and leave voluntarily. However, settler leaders charged that Bassi is engaging in psychological warfare. They insist that most of the settlers will resist evacuation.

“He’s frustrated that nobody is going to him, nobody’s signing up” for compensation or alternate housing, Gaza Coast Regional Council head Moshe Shimoni told Israel Radio. “There’s no truth in what he said. The man is simply lying.”

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres met after nightfall Wednesday with Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan, Israeli media reported, the first high-level meeting since a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv on Friday. They discussed economic cooperation, the reports said.

Gaza-Egypt moat idea abandoned
The military, meanwhile, dropped a plan to build a wide, deep moat along the Gaza-Egypt border to stop Palestinian arms smuggling through tunnels, military officials said Wednesday.

The search for the tunnels along the Israel-controlled border has set off hundreds of firefights during four years of violence. Israel keeps widening the road to make it harder to tunnel under it, destroying buildings where the tunnels originate, but new ones keep appearing.

Israel had initially planned to block the tunnels by building an 80-foot-deep, three-mile-long, sea water-filled trench, which would have required it to demolish 200 to 3,000 Palestinian homes in the already battered Rafah refugee camp.

The army determined that Attorney General Meni Mazuz would reject the plan and has come up with a less invasive design, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

The new barrier would consist of a complex of 25-foot concrete walls, an underground concrete barrier, fences and technologies to detect underground digging.

Since Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas took office in January, he has deployed Palestinian police throughout Gaza and instructed them to stop the arms smuggling. Palestinian security has reported finding and plugging eight tunnels.

Also, Egypt is prepared to post 750 soldiers on the Gaza border to stop the smuggling, but not until Israel pulls out of the border road. Israel has yet to make a final decision.

In another development, Israeli media reported Wednesday that an Israeli court sentenced an Israeli Arab to 42 years in prison for driving two Palestinian suicide bombers to Tel Aviv on January 5, 2003. The bombers blew themselves up near the old central bus station, killing 23 people, including eight foreign workers who lived in the area.

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