Meanwhile, thousands of Jewish settlers were marking what was likely to be their last Shabbat in the Gaza Strip, four days before Israeli forces start forcibly expelling those who have not yet obeyed evacuation orders.

Hundreds of extra police had already been deployed on Saturday around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, in a bid to foil plans by Jewish extremists to take over the holy site and draw Muslim worshippers into clashes.

Al-Aqsa protest

Israel has voiced fear Jewish extremists would mount a last-ditch challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to withdraw from Gaza, the first time ever Israel will evacuate occupied Palestinian land.

Israeli authorities will evict
settlers resisting the plan

A mass gathering of Jewish ultra nationalists is scheduled to take place on Sunday, prompting the Jerusalem mufti - the most senior Palestinian cleric - to urge Muslim faithful to flock to the mosque.

When the rest day of Shabbat ends on Saturday evening, Jews will start marking the annual holiday of Tisha B'Av.

The holiday - which commemorates the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples - takes on special significance this year as it coincides with the start of Israel's historic withdrawal from Gaza.

Settlements' final days

In the small occupied costal strip of Palestinian land, Jews were celebrating a Shabbat in homes and synagogues that will soon be reduced to rubble.

At midnight on Sunday, a two-day grace period during which settlers will receive the army's assistance to leave peacefully is due to kick off. On Wednesday, Israeli security forces will forcibly evacuate recalcitrant settlers.

The residents of the 21 doomed settl

Abbas said the pullout marked
the start of  'a march to freedom'

ements have received the support of an estimated 5000 ultra nationalist demonstrators who slipped through the massive security net surrounding the Gaza Strip to act as human shields.

The Israeli police has warned it will adopt a zero tolerance policy towards the orange-clad anti-pullout youths, who have concentrated their effort on a handful of settlements.

Zionist organisations in the United States were slated to hold a string of demonstrations over the weekend to express solidarity with the future evacuees and oppose the dismantling.

Gaza first, Gaza last?

On Friday, the Palestinians in Gaza also celebrated the landmark withdrawal, which comes after 38 years of occupation.

The 8000 Jews settlers occupy around 33 percent of the Gaza Strip, slicing up a territory which is home to some 1.3 million Palestinians.

Resistance groups and officials alike were jockeying to take credit for the withdrawal, promising their followers that Jerusalem and the West Bank would be next.

"Today, our march to freedom begins. Tomorrow, it will be Jenin's turn and after that Jerusalem," Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas told a crowd on Friday at a gathering called "the Festival of Victory and Freedom."

Many Palestinians fear a "Gaza first, Gaza last" scenario whereby Israel hands back the small territory and evacuates the 8000 settlers living there in exchange for permanent control over the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The main Palestinian resistance group Hamas sent a thinly-veiled message to Abbas on Friday, warning against any attempt to prevent its supporters from continuing the struggle against Israeli occupation.

"This army will continue to defend our homeland as long as one inch of Palestine remains occupied," Hamas leader in Gaza Mahmud Zahar told said after attending a training session of Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades.