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9/11 fund head: Israel must reach out to settlers

Israel should reach out to each of the 8,000 Jewish residents who will need to evacuate their homes in the Gaza Strip, the former head of the compensation program for the victims of 9/11 said Monday.

The Gaza settlers' bitter feeling of betrayal is not foreign to Kenneth Feinberg. When he ran the US government's $7 billion program, he personally met with 916 family members of the September 11, 2001, victims.

"I talked to families who lost a father, a brother or a child," Feinberg said Monday in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

"I do not think that the settlers' emotion or frustration is any more than what I encountered among bereaved family members and victims in America following the terror attacks of 9/11, who were bitter at the US for failing to protect them and their loved ones," said Feinberg.

"In the end we were able to overcome the emotions that were barriers to their participation in the program," he said.

Despite initial criticism and controversy, 97 percent of the families eligible for the program took advantage of the tax-free government funding, and in return waived their right to litigate. Forty percent of them came aboard in the last 60 days before the two-and-a-half-year program expired in December 2003, Feinberg said.

Feinberg, who was in Israel this week at the invitation of the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies for a series of meetings with government and private officials, said that despite the obvious differences between the two compensation plans, there was also a good deal of similarity.

Following what he termed the "unqualified success" of the US compensation plan, Feinberg, whose appointment to head the fund by US President George W. Bush received bipartisan support, stressed that it was essential for the Israeli government to make the rules and regulations of compensation fully transparent. He strongly recommended that the Disengagement Authority actively reach out to those slated for evacuation and make itself available for individual meetings in Gaza.

"I spent one year selling the plan to families who were angry and frustrated but who, over time, realized that the program was out to help them," Feinberg recalled.

"Sometimes I went into town meetings that were like a lion's den," he added, noting that he, too, was faced with threats albeit not death threats as his Israeli counterpart was at the start of his tenure and was given government protection.

"The emotion of bereaved family members was every bit as fever-pitched, and yet over two and a half years 97% came into the program," he said.

He noted that of the 7,000 applicants for the US compensation plan, about half ended up requesting and being granted private interviews with him or his deputies.

"Transparency, outreach and individual due process proved essential in the ultimate success of the program," he said.

Feinberg, a former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy, was tentatively scheduled to meet with Disengagement Authority head Yonatan Bassi before returning to Washington Tuesday night.

He said that the average award for death claims in the US compensation plan was $2 million, while the average sum paid out for physical injury was $400,000. The highest level of compensation for any one individual $8.6m. went to a survivor with third-degree burns over 85% of his body, he said.

According to the government's withdrawal plan, Israel will dismantle the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the northern West Bank starting July 20.

In all, some 8,000 Israelis are slated to be evacuated from their homes over an eight-week period.

Israel has allocated $870 million in compensation for the settlers, broken down into payments ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 per family, depending on size of assets.

Only a small minority of residents have accepted the compensation plan to date.

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