JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel has started compensation talks with Jewish settlers ready to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their lawyer said Wednesday, as part of an evacuation plan that has fueled a Palestinian power struggle.

With the Israeli pullout plan moving forward, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia began asserting his authority over a branch of the security forces Wednesday, a concession he won from Yasser Arafat after a 10-day standoff that paralyzed the Palestinian leadership.

U.S. and Israeli leaders – and many Palestinians – have voiced skepticism that the deal struck Tuesday was the last word in the tussle between Arafat and a corps of politicians and young militants bridling under his dictatorial rule.

Political tensions among the Palestinians were heightened by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw the army and all Jewish settlers from Gaza by next September.

Israeli Justice Ministry officials held their first meeting with a lawyer representing 90 families living in the Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank.

, also slated for evacuation, over compensation for voluntarily leaving their homes.

The lawyer, Joseph Tamir, said advance payments could be made as early as this October, though it was unclear how much money the settlers would receive or when they would have to move.

“They were playing their cards very close to the chest,” Tamir said, “but an advance that does not reflect the ability to buy a new home is not realistic.”

Nearly all the families moved to the settlements for economic reasons rather than an ideological commitment, Tamir said.

Ideologues among the settlers threaten to resist evacuation, charging that giving up a few settlements means abandoning parts of the God-given Jewish homeland and would endanger Israel’s security.

Sharon says, however, the unilateral withdrawal of civilians and the military from Gaza would reduce friction and end rule over more than 1 million Palestinians. He also has said it would help entrench Israel in the West Bank, to which he attaches a higher priority.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that soldiers discovered a Palestinian tunnel near one of the isolated Gaza settlements, Netzarim, near Gaza City. The military said the tunnel was to be used for smuggling weapons for an attack.

Early today, Israeli forces entered the Rafah Palestinian refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border, residents said, and bulldozers destroyed at least 18 abandoned buildings. Israeli military sources said the soldiers were searching for arms tunnels, and the empty structures were used by militants as cover for attacks on Israeli forces.

Israel’s unilateral pullout plan has contributed to the Palestinian power struggle, with rival groups jockeying for position to control the poverty-stricken seaside strip after Israel leaves. Israel’s government refuses to coordinate its moves with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, adding impetus to the competition.

Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the Gaza pullout with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Wednesday.

Washington believes the proposal can create an opportunity for progress toward peace, and Egypt has agreed to work with the Palestinians and the Israelis to ensure order after the proposed Israeli pullout.

Following a wave of unrest earlier this month, Arafat and Qureia became locked in a struggle to control the security services. On Tuesday, Arafat yielded authority to Qureia over the police and internal security services, while keeping responsibility for intelligence and military forces.

In return, Qureia rescinded his resignation, submitted 10 days earlier to protest his inability to deal with the lawlessness.

Hassan Abu Libdeh, the secretary of the Palestinian Cabinet, said Qureia “started today his talks with the security leaders and consulted them about the function of the internal security apparatus to impose law and order.”

Qureia will summon a top security official to brief the Cabinet on a plan to restore order to Gaza, Abu Libdeh told The Associated Press. In Cairo, Powell told reporters the United States hoped Qureia would be able to act “to provide political control and security control over Gaza.”

In Damascus, Syria, the militant group Hamas called the settlement a “significant step” toward peace in Palestinian ranks. But another Palestinian militant group, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was cool toward the deal. “The people are moaning under the duress of corruption, insecurity and an absence of legal authority,” the DFLP said in a statement.

In Jerusalem, Sharon’s advisers met top Defense Ministry officials to go over a revised map of the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has approved the changes in a 25-mile section in the Jerusalem area to comply with an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that the original route violated the rights of Palestinian residents.

Security officials said the changes will move the proposed barrier closer to the 1967 line between Israel and the West Bank, called the Green Line, but no Jewish settlements would be affected by the change.

The 425-mile-long barrier dips deep into Palestinian territory at several points and was first planned to encompass about 80 percent of the 230,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank.

Israel says the barrier is intended to prevent infiltration by Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers, but the Palestinians call it a land grab.

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