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Gazans celebrate, take over former settlements

Joyous Gazans flooded into empty Jewish settlements Monday and Palestinians climbed ropes and clambered over walls from the Egyptian side of this border town to join a chaotic celebration of the end of 38 years of Israeli military rule.
PALESTINIAN POLICE
A Palestinian police officer jumps from a bus window in the town of Beit Lahiya as Palestinians waited to enter the former Jewish settlement of Dugit, in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday.Hatem Moussa / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joyous Gazans flooded into empty Jewish settlements Monday and Palestinians climbed ropes and clambered over walls dividing this border town to join a chaotic celebration of the end of 38 years of Israeli military rule over the Gaza Strip.

Plans by Palestinian police to bar crowds from the settlements quickly disintegrated. Militant groups hoisted flags, fired wildly into the air and set abandoned synagogues ablaze, illustrating the weakness of the security forces and concerns about their ability to control growing chaos in Gaza. The pullout is widely seen as a test for Palestinian aspirations of statehood.

Among those crossing were purported members of the radical Islamic group, Hamas, who waved the group's green flag on Egyptian territory, raising immediate concern over Egypt's ability to meet Israeli demands to prevent militants from leaving Gaza.

Egyptian security forces stood by and let crossings in both directions take place, describing it as a "humanitarian" gesture to let people separated for years reunite. Security officials also suggested the crossings would be short-lived as Egypt deploys 750 heavily armed troops to secure its border with Gaza.

Before nightfall, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas arrived at the crossing and raised a Palestinian flag.

Israeli soldiers long guarded the high walls splitting the Egyptian town of Rafah against cross-border infiltrators smuggling weapons and other contraband from Egypt into the volatile Palestinian territory. But within hours of the Israeli withdrawal, hooded Palestinian militants toting guns stood atop the Palestinian wall as grinning Gazans climbed over to meet relatives.

Two walls — one Egyptian and the other long guarded by Israel — run through Rafah, separated by a narrow strip.

Gunfire interrupts celebration
At one point, a group of people strutted and chanted around a large Hamas flag on the Egyptian side. But the dance came to a brief, sudden halt after a celebratory burst of gunfire on the Palestinian side.

Egyptian border guards shot and killed a Palestinian along the Gaza-Egypt border, authorities said.

Elsewhere, doctors said three Palestinians drowned off the Gaza coast as hundreds rushed to the beach just hours after Israeli troops pulled out. The beach in southern Gaza had been off-limits to Palestinians for years because Jewish settlements ran along the coast.

"I came here because the Palestinian people have sacrificed a lot and it was Hamas that led this sacrifice," said one man identifying himself only as a Palestinian Muslim.

"We have achieved victory in Gaza and we came to wrap it up in Egypt," he added before the crowd bowed in praise to God and touched their foreheads to the dusty ground.

The last column of Israeli tanks rumbled out of Gaza just before sunrise, completing the withdrawal code-named "Last Watch." Troops locked a metal gate and hoisted their flag on the Israeli side of the border.

‘An era has ended’
"The mission has been completed, and an era has ended," said Israel's Gaza commander, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the last soldier to leave the strip.

As soldiers poured out of Gaza throughout the night, jubilant Palestinians rushed into the abandoned settlements, turning the night sky orange as fires blazed. Women shrieked in joy, teens set off fireworks and crowds chanted "God is great!"

"Today is a day of joy and happiness that our people were deprived of in the past century," Abbas said, adding that the Palestinians still have a long path toward statehood.

He denounced Israeli rule in Gaza as "aggression, injustice, humiliation, killing and settlement activity."

By midday, the situation had calmed, and curious Palestinians quietly toured the abandoned Jewish settlements as feelings of newfound freedom sank in.

"Since last night, I have been in the street, for no reason, just to breathe the air of freedom," said Samir Khader, a farmer in northern Gaza who needed Israeli permits to go in and out of his village, flanked by Israeli settlements. "I don't know what the future will bring, but at least, I can come in and out of my house at any time."

Rafah border crossing closed
No people crossed through the main Rafah border crossing point, which Israel has closed indefinitely. Instead, people went around it.

The Palestinians are demanding the crossing be opened, saying it is the main gateway for Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians to the outside world. Egypt is trying to negotiate a deal, and Israel has said it might agree to allow European monitors to man it.

Palestinians hope to build their state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War — but fear that Israel will not hand over more territory. They say Israel still occupies Gaza because it retains control over borders and airspace.

The Palestinians want full control over the Gaza-Egypt border, saying free movement of people and goods is essential for rebuilding Gaza's shattered economy. Israel wants to retain some control, at least temporarily, fearing that militants will smuggle weapons into Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he remains committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state, but linked any further withdrawals to Abbas' ability to rein in militant groups.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz urged the Palestinian to impose law and order or face a tough response.

Rebuilding Gaza's ruined economy
Abbas insists he can persuade militants to disarm peacefully. He has outlined an ambitious plan to reconstruct Gaza's shattered economy, an effort he believes will bolster forces of moderation. But he faces a difficult task in Gaza, where militants and armed gangs operate freely and wield considerable power.

Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said the group "will support any step that will produce something for our people" but made clear it has no plans to disarm as long as Israel controls the West Bank and Jerusalem.

"We should protect the resistance option and the resistance weapons," he said. "These weapons liberated the land and by these weapons, we will continue the liberation process."

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel's southern command, said the pullout presented an important opportunity for the Palestinians to control their future.

"The responsibility belongs to the Palestinian Authority," he said. "We hope that they will know how to rise to the responsibility, and enable all of us to leave in peace and security."

Palestinian authorities had promised an orderly transition, but the calls were ignored. Police stood by helplessly as gunmen raised flags of militant groups and crowds smashed what was left in the ruins or walked off with doors, window frames, toilets and scrap metals.

Empty synagogues destroyed
Palestinians torched empty synagogues in the Morag, Kfar Darom and Netzarim settlements, as well as a Jewish seminary in Neve Dekalim. Later, a Palestinian bulldozer knocked down the walls of the Netzarim synagogue.

In Netzarim, two young Palestinians waving flags stomped on the smoldering debris outside the synagogue, and others took turns hitting the building with a large hammer.

"They (Israelis) destroyed our homes and our mosques. Today it is our turn to destroy theirs," said a man in Neve Dekalim who gave his name only as Abu Ahmed.

Israel removed some 8,500 Gaza settlers from their homes in 21 settlements last month, and razed homes and most buildings in the communities. However, the Israeli Cabinet decided Sunday to leave 19 synagogue buildings intact, drawing complaints from the Palestinians and criticism from the United States.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Israeli decision "puts the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does."