The Israeli cabinet was meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday to rubber-stamp a recommendation by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz to pull the several hundred troops who still remain, out of the impoverished territory, which should form the lesser part of a future Palestinian state.

  

Troops have already packed up their equipment and are awaiting final orders to pile into their tanks and jeeps, and cross back into Israel.

  

"The forces are basically deployed in armoured vehicles along the fence around the Gush Katif communities (settlements) and the border," said an Israeli military source.

  

"They are just waiting for the okay to leave. As soon as it is authorised by the government, they will leave."

  

A formal handing-over ceremony was expected to take place at the main Erez terminal between Gaza and Israel and a passing out ceremony will also take place in the army's Gaza headquarters in the south of the territory.

 

Palestinian protest

 

The Rafah crossing is Gaza's main
gateway to the outside world

However, a Palestinian official said the Palestinian Authority wouldn't take part in the ceremony in part to protest Israel's failure to conclude a critical agreement on the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which Israel shut down temporarily this week.

 

The Rafah crossing is Gaza's main gateway to the outside world. Palestinians are afraid the absence of an agreement would lock up Gaza's 1.4 million residents after Israel's exit.

 

According to plans drawn up by Mofaz, the last troops should have left within 24 hours after the cabinet has given its seal of approval.

  

One potential stumbling block still remains, however, with a wrangle over the fate of around 20 synagogues.

  

Mofaz is reluctant to order their destruction, while the Palestinian Authority wants the Israelis to demolish them in line with a cabinet decision a fortnight ago.

 

Reduced to rubble

  

The rest of the 21 former settlements, mainly concentrated in southern Gaza, have been reduced to rubble in the three weeks since their Jewish residents were uprooted from their homes by the army and police.

  

"They are just waiting for the okay to leave. As soon as it is authorised by the government, they will leave"

Unnamed source,
Israeli military

Only a few municipal buildings still remain standing, with both sides having agreed that the settlers' homes would be inappropriate to meet the housing needs of the 1.3 million Palestinian population.

  

After the last of the soldiers have closed the door behind them, teams of Palestinian security officials will sweep the evacuated settlements for possible landmines and other booby-trapped devices they fear may have been left behind by radical opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

  

Teams of technocrats will also embark on a survey of the remaining infrastructure such as water and electricity supplies.

  

Officials have said they do not intend to allow the general public into the vacated settlements for at least a fortnight.