Gov't in Jam on Where to Transfer Gaza Residents

The Disengagement Authority again has reached a dead-end in trying to transfer 8,000 Gush Katif residents. Ashkelon is the latest addition to a lengthening list of sites that have been rejected.

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, | updated: 16:19

Yonatan Bassi, head of the Authority, is scrambling to find homes for the residents threatened by expulsion, only a few of whom have agreed to voluntarily leave their homes before the planned evacuation in less than 16 weeks. His latest plan is to house them temporarily in a trailer park in Ashkelon, a coastal city a few miles north of the old 1967 border that once separated Israel from Egyptian-held Gaza.

Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri refused even to study Bassi's proposal, asserting the idea is impractical.

"Anyone moving to Ashkelon will move to a regular apartment in one of the city's neighborhoods," he declared Thursday. "We will not allow the construction of a neighborhood of caravans."

Earlier this week, environmental groups threatened to foil any attempt by Bassi and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to move the Gush Katif residents to the coastal area of Nitzanim, north of Ashkelon. The Prime Minster's own son, Knesset Member Omri Sharon (Likud), joined Environment Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) who stressed that the idea "endangers one of the most beautiful stretches of natural land in Israel."

Nitzanim's sand dunes are one of the best-protected environmental sites on the Israeli Mediterranean coast, where most sand dunes have been eradicated by development. "Settlements should not be sacrificed at the expense of the environment," environmental activists proclaimed following Bassi's announcement.

Bassi's choice of Nitzanim also exposed him again to charges of conflict of interests. He is director of the Mehadrin agricultural export company which owns land in Nitzanim. Bassi previously has proposed that Mehadrin promote agricultural exports of the Palestinian Authority (PA) after the planned takeover of the Gush Katif greenhouses by the PA.

Prior to Ashkelon and Nitzanim, Bassi suggested that the Gush Katif population be transferred to kibbutzim in the western Negev. It soon became apparent that most of the kibbutzim are secular while most of the Jewish population in Gaza is observant. The kibbutzim also responded they did not have enough spare apartments to house thousands of newcomers.

Under the government plan, the Jewish residents of northern Samaria and Gaza were to be designated new addresses by May in order to enable children to register for school next year. However, virtually all of the children have registered to continue in the area schools.