Palestinians burn synagogues as Israel leaves Gaza

Thousands of triumphant Palestinians poured into abandoned Jewish settlements early today, setting buildings on fire, ripping out window frames and shooting in the air.

Convoys of Israeli troops have rolled out of the Gaza Strip in the final phase of Israel’s withdrawal from the territory after 38 years of occupation.

Palestinian police stood by helplessly as crowds set fire to an empty synagogue and a Jewish seminary, and Hamas gunmen raised their flags. Initial plans by police to keep the crowds away for several hours quickly collapsed, illustrating the weakness of the Palestinian security forces and concerns about growing chaos after Israel’s departure.

Gaza’s night sky turned orange as fires roared across the settlements. Women ululated, teens set off fireworks and crowds chanted: “God is great.”

“It is only the first step to more liberation … tomorrow we liberate all of Palestine,” Gaza resident Mohammed Khamish Habboush shouted into a mosque loudspeaker.

Israel had demolished nearly all buildings in its 21 Gaza settlements, but decided at the last minute to leave 19 synagogue buildings intact, a decision criticised by the Palestinians and the US.

After flooding the settlements, Palestinians started carrying off what was left in the debris in the settlements, including chairs, tables and shopping trolleys. Young men tore down electricity poles, grabbing the wires, ripped out toilets and walked off with doors and window frames.

Palestinian police in Morag appeared overwhelmed, watching the destruction from the sidelines. Officers complained that a force of only 300 had been deployed in the settlement, which is closest to the Palestinian towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

In northern Gaza, Rami Rayan, a Palestinian university student, walked towards the abandoned settlement of Elei Sinai, where he said a cousin carried out a suicide bombing five years ago. “I want to feel that his blood wasn’t spilled in vain,” Rayan said, as he picked up bullet casings as souvenirs. “They (the Israelis) left because of resistance.”

Some 5,000 Israeli troops left in Gaza began driving towards Israel before dawn and the last Israeli soldier was to be out by daybreak. At around 3am local time, the first convoy passed into Israel through the Kissufim crossing.

Last night, Israeli troops lowered their national banner in Neve Dekalim, snapped farewell pictures and closed army headquarters, which were left intact for use by the Palestinians.

In a sombre farewell ceremony, the Israeli commander in Gaza, Brig. General Aviv Kochavi, expressed hope the pull-out would be a step towards peace.

“The gate that will close behind us is also the gate that will open,” he said. “We hope it will be a gate of peace and quiet, a gate of hope and goodwill, a gate of neighbourliness.”

But he added a threat: “If a bad wind breaks through, then we will greet it with a force of troops ready and waiting.”

The withdrawal, codenamed Last Watch, was overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian disputes, including over border arrangements and Israel’s last-minute decision not to demolish Gaza synagogues. The army was forced to cancel a formal handover ceremony, initially set for yesterday, after angry Palestinians said they would not show up.

The withdrawal marks the first time the Palestinians will have control over a defined territory. They hope to build their state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem – areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Gaza is seen as a testing ground for Palestinian aspirations of statehood, but many Palestinians fear that after the Gaza pull-out, Israel will not hand over additional territory.

The Palestinians say the occupation is not really ending, noting that Israel will continue to control Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters and border passages.

The final phase of the pull began yesterday with twin decisions in the Israeli Cabinet – to end military rule in Gaza and not to raze 19 synagogues in former Jewish settlements. The decision to leave the synagogue buildings intact, a reversal of position, angered the Palestinians who said they would now be forced to demolish the buildings.

The Palestinians want full control over the Gaza-Egypt border after Israel’s withdrawal, 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.

Israel last week unilaterally closed the Rafah border crossing, the main gateway for Gaza’s 1.3 million Palestinians, to the outside world.

Last week, Israel agreed in principle that foreign observers could eventually replace Israeli inspectors at Rafah. However, Israel said it could be months before the border reopens, and that a final deal would depend on Palestinian willingness to crack down on militant groups.

In the meantime, it plans to reroute border traffic through alternate Israeli-controlled crossings and turn over security control of the border to Egyptian forces, 750 of whom deployed at the border over the weekend.

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