TEL AVIV, Israel — Few of the Gaza Strip's 1.3 million Palestinians ever saw Jewish settlers up close during the 38 years of Israeli occupation.
The settlers lived behind high earthwork berms and chain-linked fences.
It was the Israeli soldiers protecting them who came face to face with the Palestinians.
And when the last of them locked the gate in the high-security fence surrounding three sides of the Gaza Strip on Monday morning, Palestinians had good reason to celebrate.
Israeli military controlled life
It was the Israeli military which called all the shots during the occupation of Gaza.
It required more than 25 percent of the Mediterranean enclave's land to protect the settlers and the lands they used to build and farm.
Israeli soldiers controlled the major roads in the Gaza Strip, and closed them whenever they needed to move military convoys or even settlers in and out of the strip, or from one settlement to another.
Israeli soldiers carried out government orders to demolish Palestinian homes to clear lines of fire around the settlements and to punish families of men suspected of attacking Israeli soldiers or civilians.
The Israeli military carried out the targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants and radical political leaders, too.
These were all the actions of an occupying power the Palestinians saw for 38 years.
Monday's images of jubilant Palestinians entering empty settlements were expected. So too was the presence of gunmen from the radical factions firing shots in the air, placing their banners on abandoned Israeli military watchtowers and claiming credit for driving out the Jews.
But, so was the realization that the Gaza Strip is now one big jail, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and an electronic fence, albeit with the jailers on the outside instead of being among them.
With 60 percent living on less than $3 a day, most Palestinians are happy to hope that one benefit they can now look forward to is economic prosperity.
Although, they are well aware that their future remains under tight Israeli control until they can have a border crossing point into Egypt, a seaport, and an international airport operating without Israeli supervision. Israel says it is studying the matter.
Palestinian consensus necessary
A majority of Israelis favored this unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and many are now curious to see how their armed forces will react to any future attack from Palestinians inside Gaza firing into Israel proper. The military has said it has a wide range of responses to choose from.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his governing circle are anxious that the international community does not get bogged down in making Gaza work at the expense of pressuring Israel to disengage from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and eventually East Jerusalem. But international support will depend largely on the security situation in Gaza.
So, Abbas needs to placate militant groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and dissuade them from launching attacks on Israel. He knows his security forces are outmanned and outgunned by the militants, but he also knows that Palestinians will not fight a civil war for control of Gaza.
He knows the only option open to him is to bring them into the political arena and trust them to police themselves.
Despite the complexities and the uncertainty of the future, Palestinians are celebrating the liberation of the Gaza Strip and grateful to be in control of their own patch, however small and enclosed. It has increased their determination to recover more of their land.
For Israel, Gaza is already a memory. But it might soon be a barometer of how future relations with the Palestinians might be conducted on the West Bank and in Jerusalem.
A stable Gaza Strip will signal a new Palestinian maturity which the international community might use to persuade Israel to give up more occupied land.