The joint tour of the Gush Katif bloc of settlements by Palestinian commanders and Israeli military officials marked the first time that Palestinian officials have been allowed into the communities.

While security cooperation has been strong since Israel began clearing out of Gaza last month, Israel has refused to allow the Palestinians into the settlements due to security concerns.

The Palestinians say access to the settlements and information about the remaining infrastructure is essential for planning Gaza's future.

"They have been working with maps. Now they need to work on the ground," said Saeb Erikat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

 

Palestinian security officials said commanders were touring what is left of the Gush Katif bloc of settlements in southern and central Gaza. The commanders also were to receive aerial maps of the settlements.

Israeli military officials said joint tours of the settlements were planned but could not confirm whether they had begun. The joint tours were another sign of progress as Israel prepares to complete the Gaza withdrawal after a 38-year occupation.

Diplomatic windfall  

Israel has been reaping a diplomatic windfall from the withdrawal. Officials said on Monday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plans to make a rare visit to Israel in November to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mubarak's only other visit to Israel was to attend Rabin's funeral. There was no immediate confirmation from Egypt.

 

Separately, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom plans to lead a delegation to a conference in the Arab nation of Tunisia, which broke off low-level relations when Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted in late 2000, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Mubarak is said to plan a visit
Israel in November 

Regev said Israel has also sent messages to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, expressing a desire to form ties.

Although the Israeli pullout is near complete, several key issues remain unresolved. International mediator James Wolfensohn has been trying to broker an agreement on the most pressing issue, future control Gaza's border with
Egypt.

The Palestinians say free movement across the border is essential to rebuilding Gaza. The Israelis are insisting on maintaining some control over entry, fearing resistance fighters will smuggle weapons into Gaza.

The Palestinians have plans for housing, tourism and industrial projects for Gaza. About 1.3 million Palestinians live in the impoverished strip of land along the Mediterranean coast.

The Palestinians have agreed to use the rubble of the demolished Israeli homes to build a seaport and construction of large apartment buildings to ease the area's housing crunch.

Synagogues

Pressured by the powerful Jewish religious establishment, the Israeli government has been reluctant to destroy a number of synagogues in the former Gaza settlements and is asking the Palestinian Authority (PA) to dispose of the buildings in any way it sees fit.

The eight small synagogues are the last remaining standing buildings in the vacated Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

"This is a very sensitive issue. We are Muslims and our religion and traditions do not allow us to desecrate or destroy places of worship"

Abd Allah Abd Allah,
Palestinian Foreign Ministry official

The Israeli High Court of Justice last week ordered the army to refrain from demolishing the synagogues after several rabbis petitioned the court.

The rabbis argued that the demolition of the synagogues would be incompatible with the Jewish law, or Halacha.

According to reliable sources in Ramallah, Israel has asked third parties to convince the PA to agree to leave the buildings intact.

However, the PA said that the task of disposing of the settlements is Israel's responsibility.

Pretext

PA Foreign Ministry official Abd Allah Abd Allah said any synagogue remaining in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal would be used as a "pretext" to retain a foothold and intervene in Palestinian affairs.

"This is a very sensitive issue. We are Muslims and our religion and traditions do not allow us to desecrate or destroy places of worship.

"But we feel the Israelis are trying to entrap us by leaving these places intact and then tell the world, 'Look, the Palestinians are destroying Jewish holy places, the Palestinians show no respect for Jewish holy places," he told Aljazeera.net.

Abd Allah said Israel should dismantle the synagogues and transfer them to Israel.

"We are willing and ready to help the Israeli government and army to dismantle these places respectfully and with dignity," he said

Future attacks

Earlier, Muslim officials warned that Israel might want to leave the synagogues intact so that Palestinians would demolish them in order to justify possible future attacks on or destruction of Muslim holy places, such as Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque.

"I know that Muslims and Jews worship the same God, hence, I suggest that instead of demolishing these place, they be converted into mosques"

Menachem Froman,
rabbi

Jewish extremists have threatened to destroy the mosque to rebuild a Jewish temple on its site.

Some rabbis from the religious-Zionist camp, with which most Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are affiliated, have suggested that the Gaza synagogues be converted to mosques.

This is the view of Rabbi Menachem Froman, rabbi of the settlement of Tkeou near Bethlehem, who enjoys good contacts with Palestinian religious leaders.

"According to our Sharia (Halacha), it is prohibited to destroy a synagogue under any circumstances. I know that Muslims and Jews worship the same God, hence, I suggest that instead of demolishing these place, they be converted into mosques," Froman told Aljazeera.net from Rome where he is attending an interfaith dialogue conference.

Froman urged Muslims to respect non-Islamic holy places.

"I know that Israel respects and maintains the holy places of non-Muslims, especially the People of the Book (Muslims, Christians and Jews).

 

"Therefore, I hope that these synagogues be allowed to remain intact and used if possible as places of worship by Muslims."

However, a number of Muslim clerics have rejected the offer, pointing out that hundreds of synagogues the world over have been abandoned.

 

Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank contributed to this report.