GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Palestinians are preparing to take over abandoned Jewish settlements in Gaza – drawing up plans for high-rise apartments and debating whether to name evacuated towns after deceased leaders or historical events.

The Palestinian Authority says it’s ready to assume control, but the most important decisions for Gaza’s future – how to get people and goods in and out – are still up in the air.

Israel is expected to complete its military pullout from Gaza within two weeks, after having emptied the coastal strip and four West Bank enclaves of some 9,000 Israeli settlers. Now the Palestinians are fast at work figuring out what do with the land they call “liberated,” and dreams of a better future abound.

In the evacuated areas, the Palestinians envision parks, industrial zones, a new seaport, a nature reserve, tourism facilities and new housing to ease overcrowding in the fenced-in coastal strip that is home to 1.4 million mostly impoverished Palestinians.

Palestinian security forces will enter the settlement areas as soon as Israeli troops leave, most likely on Sept. 15, to “clear the area of any possible explosive objects or land mines,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfek Abu Khoussa. In the meantime, officials have been handing out fliers declaring “The Future is Ours” and admonishing Gazans to stay out of the settlements.

Only after the land is deemed safe will ordinary Palestinians be allowed in for what’s expected to be a massive celebration. Hamas militants say they’ll participate in the official ceremonies, then stage their own military-style parades.

A ceremony between Palestinian and Israeli field commanders will mark the actual handover. Then local governors, mayors and Cabinet ministers will arrive to “deliver the message that the land is being reclaimed by the Palestinian people,” said Mohammed Samhouri, a handover organizer.

After that, technical teams will inventory abandoned Israeli assets and evaluate the condition of water, electricity and road facilities, Samhouri said.

Palestinians will face a Herculean task in removing rubble from Israel’s demolition of some 2,800 settler homes that was completed this week, though Israel plans to foot the estimated $30 million bill for it.

Palestinians already have begun discussing what to name the evacuated areas. Top suggestions include “Yasser Arafat” and “Sheikh Ahmed Yassin,” the slain founder of Hamas.

Palestinians also are racing to take over Israeli greenhouses in time to plant a winter crop.

“We will do our homework and we will do it top notch,” said Basil Jaber, a Palestinian businessman leading the greenhouse takeover. “We would like to show Israel and the international community that we’re capable.”

Both Israel and the Palestinians have an interest in making Gaza less isolated and destitute: Israel because it hopes a brighter future will prevent terror and the Palestinians because they hope a successful pullout could lead to more withdrawals.

But the two sides have yet to agree on the status of Gaza’s most important link to the outside world – the border crossing between the territory and Egypt – and intense negotiations were under way to balance Gazans’ demand for open borders with Israel’s need for security.

As part of an agreement with Egypt, Israel will withdraw its troops from a patrol road along the Gaza-Egypt border, and some 750 Egyptian troops will take up positions there, starting this weekend, to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.

Israel says it will begin constructing a new border terminal next week at the point where Gaza, Egypt and Israel meet, near the Israeli communal farm of Kerem Shalom. Israel wants all goods and people flowing into Gaza to go through the new terminal and be inspected by Israeli personnel.

The Palestinians say they’re willing to route imports through Kerem Shalom to preserve a customs union with Israel. But they want exports and people to go through the existing Rafah terminal inside Gaza, with inspections by third-party monitors rather than Israel.

More talks were scheduled, but an agreement did not appear close.

“This is a major issue that needs to be resolved and I think it needs to be resolved very soon,” said Nigel Roberts, the World Bank’s country director for the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians say that without an agreement on that and other issues – including the opening of a harbor and airport – Israel’s 38-year-old occupation of Gaza is not really ending.

For Jaber, who’s leading the $33 million greenhouse project, it’s more than an academic discussion.

Even if Palestinians meet a Sept. 25 deadline for planting winter crops, there’s no guarantee the perishable fruits and vegetables will get access to outside markets, he said.

Israel says it’s committed to allowing Palestinian freedom of movement after it leaves Gaza, but it also wants to ensure that militants do not use the territory as a base of operations for carrying out attacks, using increasingly sophisticated weapons smuggled over the border.

“We want to be as flexible as we can on the issue of the crossings,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

About 3 percent of the land abandoned by Israel is held by private Palestinian citizens, and those who still have their titles are pushing hard to get it back.

Among them is 47-year-old Abdel Hakim Abu Samra, who held up a frayed British deed dating from 1935. He said he wants to build tourist bungalows on his land near the beach in northern Gaza, and hopes Israelis will be among the paying guests.

“We’ve been suffering for 50 years. We need to feel like other nations,” he said.


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