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Synagogues ablaze in Gaza revelry

Neve Dekalim, Gaza Strip, Sept. 12 (Reuters): Jubilant Palestinians planted flags on the rubble of Jewish settlements and set synagogues ablaze today 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 said in Gaza City.

Palestinian forces waving victory signs took over while tanks and armoured vehicles trundled out in the dark, for the first time giving up 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 scenes on the Egypt-Gaza frontier after Israeli forces withdrew, 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 that 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 tensions, Israel demanded that the buildings be preserved.

Removing Gaza’s 8,500 settlers has won Sharon international accolades.

But while Palestinians welcome 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.

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, 35, in the biggest settlement of Neve Dekalim.

In demolished enclaves in north Gaza, Palestinians scavenged for everything from roof tiles to bathtubs.

With the departure of Israeli forces that had maintained strict control along the Egypt-Gaza border, thousands crossed the fence line both ways, reuniting with friends.

President Abbas’s first task will be to enforce order and rein in militant groups which refuse to disarm. Israel has threatened massive retaliation if attacks from Gaza continue.

“They can wave any flag they want, but we expect the Palestinian Authority to take full responsibility,” said the general commanding the pullout, Dan Harel.

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