Houses Demolished as Final Gaza Settlement Evacuated

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Peat Sadeh, Gaza Strip ( - Even before Israel has finished evacuating Gaza Strip settlements as part of the disengagement plan, the demolition of homes there has already begun in preparation for turning the area over to the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli police officers and soldiers were evacuating the last of 21 Gaza Strip settlements on Monday, ending more than 30 years of Israeli settlements there.

House demolitions were set to continue Monday. On Sunday, bulldozers and baggers (mechanical diggers) destroyed homes in the settlements of Dugit, Ganei Tal and Peat Sadeh, settlements in the 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip being evacuated as part of the Israeli government-approved disengagement plan.

The Palestinian Authority insisted that Israel demolish the houses in the areas they are evacuating because, they said, the houses were not appropriate for the Palestinians, who hope to build high-rise buildings there.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense is responsible for demolishing the 2,000 houses in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip, but civilian contractors were hired to do the work to avoid the military being associated with the destruction, officials said.

"We don't think it is proper for the military to deal in demolition," said Defense Ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi.

"The Ministry of Defense construction department is usually involved in building. They've done marvelous and great projects," said Niedak-Ashkenazi.

"Right now, we're carrying out a government decision concerning the houses," she said.

Ministry of Defense workers who are taking part in the demolition project said they never participated in destroying structures in the past.

Shmuel Siboni, head of the infrastructure division of Gush Katif in the Ministry of Defense, headed the project to destroy the homes, but he was not enthusiastic about the job.

"The work doesn't make me happy," said Siboni. "We usually build ... we never destroy. No one is excited about it."

Siboni estimated it would take five or six weeks to destroy all the homes in the Gaza Strip. Siboni gave the order to begin the demolitions of the 61 homes, many of which had had ocean views, in Peat Sadeh on Sunday.

The first to go

The families of Peat Sadeh were some of the first to leave voluntarily before the official removals began last week. They moved en masse to the community of Mavkiim just north of the Gaza Strip inside Israel.

Three young men who said they were part of the security detail in the settlement came out of one of the houses. "This was the house of our friend," they said. "It's sad."

By mid-Sunday, Defense Ministry officials had finished marking the houses with a black, spray-painted, Hebrew letter "koof," indicating that the houses contained no military equipment or ritual holy items and were ready for demolition.

The two-story home of Claudine and Giora Chazan was the first to go. A bagger and bulldozer moved in to do the job. As the bulldozer crashed through the wall and hedge surrounding the yard, the bagger took a bite out of the roof.

The rumbling of the machinery shook the ground as swipe after swipe was taken at the house. In less than half an hour, the two-story home was reduced to a pile of rubble.

Within an hour, at least seven houses had been demolished. One of the small, two-bedroom, bungalow-type houses went down in less than five minutes.

"The bagger is usually used to dig holes to plant trees. Here, it is uprooting a 'tree,'" said one workman in the crowd in reference to the tearing down of homes.

One Ministry of Defense official was carrying a name plaque he said he had removed from a house so that it wouldn't be destroyed.

"It's a very sad and traumatic thing we see here," said Amit Gilead, a Foreign Ministry spokesman at the site.

'Historic step'

"Israel is [making] a unique, historic step here, and we hope that the Palestinians see this step as a chance for them to practice governing this region" and investing the money being given to them from international sources for the benefit of the people, said Gilead.

"On the other hand, if [the Palestinians] miss this chance as they have before ... and invest all their efforts and funds ... to make Gaza a terror base against Israel, then [they] have missed a chance to [walk on] the path to peace," he said.

"We hope in our days, we will see this place swarming with happy people [Palestinians] like the people who used to live here," Niedak-Ashkenazi said. "[We hope] that it will be some sort of bridge for future friendly relations."

Meanwhile, the army has dug trenches around some of the settlements that have been evacuated in order to prevent large groups of Palestinians from entering the settlements, Niedak-Ashkenazi said. "It's a very fragile situation," she said.

P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree over the weekend putting all the land that Israel is leaving under the authority of the P.A. If individuals have documents indicating that land belongs to them, they will have a chance to claim it, he said.

No agreement has yet been reached about what will happen to the rubble from the houses, said Niedak-Ashkenazi.

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