Goodbye to all that

What will Israel leave behind as it quits the Gaza Strip? Anton La Guardia on the demolition dilemma

The red-roofed villas of Neve Deka-lim, erected on pristine sand dunes rolling down to the Mediterranean, could easily be mistaken for holiday cottages - if it weren't for the fences and tanks that protect the settlement, and the countless mortars and rockets that Palestinian gunmen have fired into it.

By this autumn, according to Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, there will not be a Jewish settler or Israeli soldier left here. But as Israeli police and soldiers prepare to pull the people out, by force if necessary, the question is what to do about the empty houses: leave them as a gift to Palestinians, or destroy them in a scorched-earth retreat? What of the greenhouses, factories, synagogues and the graveyard?

The decision will depend on how the Israeli prime minister thinks events will be recorded on television. His problem is that he wants to convey entirely different messages to Israeli, western and Arab audiences: to the settlers, empathy; to the world, respectability; and to the Palesti-nians, strength and deterrence. "On the one hand, the image of destroying houses is not good for Israel," said Sharon last month. "But on the other, I don't want terrorist flags waving from the rooftops."

In other words, he does not want the BBC to portray the bulldozing of homes as another example of Israeli brutality. But neither does he want to be shown on Israeli television as allowing terrorists to desecrate the homes of Jewish victims of terrorism. Above all, he does not want to concede "victory" to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other armed groups that have waged the Palestinian intifada for the past five years.

Virtually to a man, Israel's military high command is convinced there is a direct connection between Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and the outbreak of the intifada four months later. The generals argue that by retreating from Lebanon without first securing a peace agreement, Israel displayed weakness, undermined its military "deterrence" and made Palestinians believe they could emulate Hezbollah in driving out the Israel Defence Forces.

To settlers, the withdrawal from Gaza risks repeating the same error. "Five years of terror has broken the government," said Avi Farhan, a veteran of Alei Sinai, a settlement in Gaza. "Hamas is right: Israel is fleeing from Hamas and Islamic fundamentalist terror. But the terror will just run after us."

Hamas's electoral successes in recent municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip accentuate such fears. Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service warned recently that if Hamas members become elected politicians, it will be harder to assassinate them in the next round of fighting, which Israelis and Palestinians alike expect to break out in the coming months.

Pushed by contradictory forces, Sharon zigzags: one moment resuming the killing of Palestinian militants, the next releasing Palestinian prisoners; one moment saying Israel will leave whatever the Palestinians do, the next threatening to invade the city of Khan Yunis if the evacuation comes under fire from Palestinians.

Sharon needs the Palestinian Authority to take over the Gaza Strip and demonstrate that Israel is not running away. Yet he is also undermining it by ostentatiously settling more Jews in the West Bank to show the Israeli public that he is not caving in to Palestinian violence.

For the moment, Israeli ministers seem agreed on leaving behind the economic infrastructure of the settlements, including the greenhouses that produce cherry tomatoes and organic lettuce for British consumers, and carting away the synagogues. A rabbinical ruling is being sought to allow the exhumation of graves.

As for the villas, there is a strange alliance between the Israeli left and the military to leave them intact. The former want to portray Israel as enlightened and generous, and the latter want to avoid expense and risk. "It would take months to des-troy the houses. Why stay longer than we need to?" asked one senior Israeli official. "How will we explain to an Israeli mother that her son has been killed in the Gaza Strip so that rubble could be removed?"

Perhaps surprisingly, Palestinian ministers favour demolition. "We do not need these villas. They do not fit in with our plans. We need high-density housing for the people of Gaza," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian planning minister. "There will probably be an attempt to storm the area to show it has been liberated. People who lost their children and houses will try to claim them and say they deserve them because of their sacrifice. The Palestinian Authority will try to maintain law and order, but who knows what will happen? The wise thing would be for the Israelis to get rid of these houses before they leave. It would make life a lot easier."

Anton La Guardia's Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians is published by John Murray