Israeli troops begin driving out of Gaza and Palestinian forces take over abandoned positions
MORAG, Gaza Strip – Triumphant Palestinian troops accompanied by cheering, flag-waving crowds took control of abandoned Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip Monday, as Israeli troops rolled out of the territory in convoys in the final phase of Israel’s pullout from the territory after 38 years of occupation.Fireworks lit up the sky, Palestinian gunmen fired in the air in celebration and crowds set fire to the synagogue in the abandoned Morag settlement, closest to Palestinian towns. In another synagogue, gunmen climbed on the roof and waved flags of militant groups, including Hamas, shouting “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 after evacuating the residents, but it decided at the last minute to leave 19 synagogues intact, a decision criticized by the Palestinians and the United States.Early Monday, Palestinians started carrying off what was left in the debris in the settlements, including chairs, tables and shopping carts. Young men tore down electricity poles, grabbing the wires, and several people carried off window frames.In the former isolated settlement of Netzarim, women ululated in celebration.The 5,000 Israeli troops who had been left in Gaza began driving toward Israel before dawn Monday. Dozens of soldiers waited on the Israeli side of the crossing as the first convoy of armored vehicles passed through the Kissufim crossing. Gaza commander Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi was expected to be the last Israeli soldier to leave.Late Sunday, Israeli troops had lowered their national banner in Neve Dekalim, once the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza. They snapped farewell pictures and closed army headquarters, which were left intact for use by the Palestinians.In a somber farewell ceremony, Kochavi expressed hope the pullout would be a step toward 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 neighborliness and if a bad wind breaks through then we will greet it with a force of troops ready and waiting.”But the withdrawal, code-named “Last Watch,” was overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian disputes, including over border arrangements and Israel’s last-minute decision not to demolish Gaza synagogues.The 14-2 Cabinet vote against razing the houses of worship was a reversal of position and angered the Palestinians, who have detailed plans for the settlement areas but fear international criticism if buildings are demolished or defaced by Palestinian crowds targeting symbols of occupation.In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Israeli Cabinet decision “puts the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does.”Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa told AP late Sunday that the Palestinian Authority would demolish the synagogues and other buildings left behind, except for the greenhouses.The Israeli army also was forced to cancel a formal handover ceremony, initially set for Sunday, after angry Palestinians said they wouldn’t show up.Last-minute bloodshed was another concern. A 12-year-old Palestinian boy was among four Palestinians wounded by Israeli army fire when a crowd got too close to the abandoned Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements.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 Mideast War. Gaza is seen as a testing ground for Palestinian aspirations of statehood, but many Palestinians fear that after the Gaza pullout, Israel will not hand over additional territory.The Palestinians also say the occupation is not really ending, noting that Israel will continue to control Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters and border passages. “Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, the Gaza Strip will remain occupied Palestinian territory under international law,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan said.The final phase of the pullout began Sunday with twin decisions in the Israeli Cabinet – to end military rule in Gaza and not to raze 19 synagogues in former Jewish settlements there.The vote on the military rule was largely symbolic. Israel already has withdrawn all of its 8,500 settlers from Gaza, leaving only soldiers there.On Sunday evening, Israel closed down its army headquarters in Neve Dekalim, and several hours later, convoys began rolling out of the strip. “Everything is coordinated, everything is based on a plan, organized. We are leaving strong,” said one Israeli field commander, Lt. Col. Tzvila Tzoran.Moments before getting the final pullout order, Tzoran sat on the turret of a tank on an isolated sand dune, bidding farewell to the Gaza coastline he had come to love during his one-year stint. Other soldiers took pride in the orderly withdrawal, in contrast to the hasty retreat from Lebanon five years ago.On the Palestinian side, dozens of Palestinians troops set up positions on a sand dune, just south of Gaza City, near Netzarim. One of the officers, Tarek Issa, waved a Palestinian flag. “I cannot wait to go and raise it inside. Today is the beginning of the victory,” he said.However, the celebrations were marred by disputes over border arrangements.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 have deployed at the border this weekend.Vail, Colorado
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