Buses filled with evacuated settlers headed out of Israel's last Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim on Monday, witnesses said. 

"Right now there are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip," said Major-General Dan Harel, the commander in charge of the Gaza evacuation.

"The only Israeli citizens [in the strip] are the security forces," he said.

But in the West Bank, radicals opposed to ceding settlements on any land that Palestinians seek for a state dug in for a last stand at two enclaves that are also to be removed under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's pullout plan.

There were insults and tears in Netzarim, the last Gaza Strip settlement to be cleared on Monday, but no sign of the noisy protests or burning barricades that greeted the evacuation of some of the other 20 settlements in Gaza last week.

Despite the scenes of settlers being dragged weeping from homes and protesters being carried screaming from synagogues, evacuations of the 8500 Gaza settlers have taken two weeks less than expected.

But more clashes are expected at Sanur and Homesh, two West Bank settlements due to be removed on Tuesday and whose numbers have been swollen by hundreds of youths from the most radical outposts.

Fear of rampage

Pullout opponents hope to make those withdrawals so traumatic that it will make it much harder to consider giving up more settlements in the West Bank, to which Israelis see a much stronger biblical claim than to tiny Gaza.

Some settlers have moved to the
temporary Netivot camp in
Israel

On top of a hulking stone citadel in Sanur, youths stockpiled supplies and welded metal rods into makeshift weapons to repel Israeli troops.

Fearing an armed rampage, security chiefs have advised Palestinians living nearby to stay at home on Tuesday.

Rightists say the pullout, celebrated as a victory by Palestinian armed groups, rewards the Palestinian uprising that started in 2000.

But most Israelis back the plan, and Washington hopes it will serve as a catalyst for renewed peacemaking.

Sharon stressed on Sunday there would be no more unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, where Israel aims to keep major settlements, the biggest of which houses tens of thousands.

"There will be building in the settlement blocs," he was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post. "I will build."

Sharon says further withdrawals will only come through talks with the Palestinians, which in turn depend on fighters being disarmed under a peace road map backed by the UN, EU, US and Russia.

Israel has failed to meet its own road map commitment to freeze settlement building.

Israeli forces finished emptying the main Gaza bloc of Gush Katif on Sunday.

Bulldozers set about razing the red-roofed homes and neat lawns under a deal with the Palestinians, eyeing the space to house some of Gaza's densely packed population.

A full handover may not happen before October.

Illegal settlements

The World Court has ruled that Israel's settlements in Gaza and the West Bank are illegal. Israel disputes this.

Palestinians particularly resented Netzarim because it almost cut the strip in two.

The World Court says Gaza and
West Bank colonies are illegal

"I hope that our tragedy will be over soon," said Palestinian farmer Rashad Badawi, near Netzarim.

Palestinians are glad to see the back of the Gaza settlers, but they fear Israel intends to keep most West Bank settlements, housing 230,000 people.

About 3.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza.

Facing a strong challenge from armed groups, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he hopes to use the pullout to promote a message of non-violence and support for talks.

"The people's beliefs are changing," Abbas said, adding that Israel needed to do more to help and stop acting unilaterally.

Palestinian agreement

Meanwhile, secretary-general of the Islamic Jihad movement Ramadan Abd Allah Shallah said an agreement had been reached between leaders of Palestinian factions living in Damascus and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia to adopt a unified strategy over post-pullout Gaza.

 

The strategy would be based on preserving Palestinian resistance arms, Shallah said.

 

Deputy bureau chief for Hamas, Musa Abu Marzouq, reaffirmed that the movement would take part in the upcoming legislative elections and would accept the Palestinian people's choice through the election process.

French journalist freed

Also on Monday, a French television journalist kidnapped at gunpoint more than a week ago was freed.

Mohamed Ouathi, 46, walked into a police station in Gaza, eight days after he was seized by three armed men who forced him into a car as he walked to his hotel.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnapping and no apparent motive.

Ouathi had worked at the station France-3 since 1994.

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press watchdog group, noted that the kidnappers wore no blindfolds and said that shows "that a certain climate of impunity" reigns in Gaza.