It's hard to believe! The Israeli government, headed by Ariel Sharon, father of the Jewish settlements in the territories, is inviting Arabs to settle in the homes of Jews who were "uprooted" from Gush Katif. An hour after the defense minister decides to recommend to the government to leave the villas standing, the radio waves fill with settlers bemoaning their fate: As if the "expulsion" were not enough, they are going to be forced to watch Arab children sitting under their fig trees! Who knows, maybe Moussa, who picked their wormless lettuce for years, will finally get around to improving the lot of his family, through the settlers' former business.

The settler family with the lettuce wouldn't hesitate a minute if it could acquire a nice house in Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood or on the lands of Ikrit in the upper Galilee. They won't be any different from tens of thousands of Jews, including quite a few leftists, who have made their homes in Arab houses, whose former occupants in the worst case ran away from Palestine and in the much worse case were expelled. Many of the Palestinian refugees now live in the refugee camps only a checkpoint or two away from their childhood homes.

One of those refugees read in the newspaper that the national housing company, Amidar, is threatening to evict the Greek consulate in Jerusalem from his parent's home because it refuses to pay the Israeli government for the right to live in his house.

Thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem are losing their homes nowadays to the route of the separation fence. The homes of thousands of Arab children are cut off from the homes of their grandparents, friends, schools and playgrounds. And they don't have a lobby in the Knesset or public relations companies or well-connected lawyers.

Nonetheless, with all the sorrow about the bitter fate of the Palestinian refugees, they have no Israeli partner to actualize their right of return. People are not removed from their homes to do someone else justice. Israel is not withdrawing from Gush Katif to solve the housing problems of the neighbors in the refugee camps of Gaza.

The Arab refugees of Palestine and the returning residents of Gaza are not the first people who were uprooted from their homes by a national conflict. In the case of Bosnia-Herzogovina, the 1995 agreement that put an end to the violent conflict in the Balkans ruled not only that the refugees from one side would live in the homes on the other, but there were even official transfers of the property. In Greece and Turkey of the post-World War II era, it was self-evident that property was to be transferred in its entirety from one side to the other. In enlightened countries, such matters are regarded as humanitarian, not as a political matter with ramifications in the psychological sphere.

Once the decision is made to evacuate Gush Katif and leave the buildings standing, it is difficult to understand why Israel is not demanding that it also add its abandoned property to the overall "account" in the refugee bank. Why is it legitimate to demand that the property Jews were forced to leave behind to the Iraqis be counted against the compensation due to the Palestinian refugees, while the property going to the Palestinians in Gaza is left behind without any demands for compensation? The answer is that if the prime minister were to start direct negotiations with the Palestinians for compensation for the real estate of Gush Katif, it could be interpreted as recognition of a "Palestinian partner." Someone might even get the idea that Israel is conducting negotiations about the refugee problem - a subject, as is known, that is reserved for the final status agreement, may it rest in peace.

By the way, according to Prof. Eyal Benvenisti, a Tel Aviv University international law expert specializing in refugee affairs, by deciding to leave the bulldozers at home, Sharon is not doing the Palestinians any favors, nor is he doing something wrong to the settlers. According to international law, Benvenisti says, as long as the occupied population can make use of the occupier's property, the occupier is obliged to leave it whole.