NEVE DEKALIM (Gaza Strip), Sept 12: Jubilant Palestinians planted flags on the rubble of Jewish settlements and set fire to synagogues on Monday as Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.
“This is a day of happiness and joy that the Palestinian people have not witnessed for a century,” President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Gaza City.
Palestinian forces waving victory signs took over while tanks and armoured vehicles moved out in the dark, for the first time yielding settlements on land Palestinians want for a state and leaving them a volatile testing ground for statehood.
“The mission has been completed,” said Brigadier Aviv Kochavi after the gates closed at the main crossing point. “Israel’s presence of 38 years has come to an end.”
In chaotic movement by Palestinians across the Gaza-Egypt frontier after Israeli forces left, a Palestinian man was shot dead. Palestinian witnesses said he was killed by Egyptian border guards. Egypt denied this.
Rancour over the fate of the settlers’ synagogues clouded hopes the pullout would help revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking as Washington wants.
Attacking what they saw as symbols of hated occupation, youths set ablaze several of the houses of worship left behind in 21 settlements evacuated last month under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to “disengage” from conflict.
Palestinians were furious when Sharon’s cabinet decided to leave synagogues intact, under pressure from rabbis whose support could be key in a power struggle. Adding to the tension, Israel demanded on Monday that the buildings be preserved.
Removing Gaza’s 8,500 settlers has won Sharon international accolades.
However, while Palestinians welcomed the withdrawal, they fear Sharon is trading Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, for a permanent hold on larger areas of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 Jewish settlers live isolated from 2.4 million Arabs.
Palestinians were also angry that Israel, citing security reasons, will continue to control Gaza’s border crossings, air space and waters and say the occupation is far from over.
A US State Department official said the ball was in the Palestinians’ court after the pullout.
“What we need is for the momentum to continue and to make sure that the Palestinian Authority moves to establish the kind of institutional order and security that President Abbas has said he is committed to achieving,” he said in New York.
Thousands of Palestinians brought families to nose around former settlements, licking ice creams and sucking on sweets.
“Before, this was a symbol of fear and evil. Today it’s a place to visit and a source of happiness,” said building worker Abdullah Salah in the settlement of Neve Dekalim.—Reuters