Throughout the day, they toured the settlements just vacated by the Israelis. But while they remained ecstatic, they also pondered the restrictions of their new-found freedom.

Using roads that had previously been blocked for them, Palestinians from all walks of life - men, women, children, and resistance fighters alike - poured into the former colonies after day break to take a glimpse of what was inside.

In the infamous colony of Nezarim, which had strategically split Gaza into two sections and was for so long a pillar and much-hated symbol of the occupation, nothing was left untouched by departing Israeli forces.   

Trees were uprooted, electricity lines were cut, and vegetation inside greenhouses and around the land had not been watered for over 15 days, leaving a dry and dead landscape.

Palestinians salvaged what they could from the rubble, including copper wires and scrap metal which sells for 8 shekels ($2) a kilo in this impoverished territory.

Some children picked large mangoes off a razed tree, while others took to scavenging for leftover toys and books.  All were elated and awe-struck, expressing relief and excitement at seeing the occupiers depart.

End of fear

Palestinians reclaim a former
Israeli sniper tower

"We can finally move freely throughout Gaza and play without anyone shooting at us," said 14-year-old Abdullah Yunis, as he surveyed the remains of an Israeli sniper tower that overlooked his refugee camp.

Amidst the curious crowds, a Palestinian photojournalist walked around in a vest stapled with pictures he had taken of Palestinians martyrs killed by Israelis forces, including the youngest victim - a four month baby from Khan Yunis.

"I want them to witness this historic moment with me. I want to also make sure that people never forget what they died for," he said.

Palestinians wandered around in disbelief, trying to absorb the scene and the moment. For some, like 26-year old Omar Budran, who lost a leg after an Israeli helicopter gunship fired at a group of Palestinians not far from the settlement in the crowded Nusseirat refugee camp two years ago, the day was particularly poignant.

"It's an incredible day for me. I am overwhelmed with happiness, and I am optimistic about what the future might bring," he said.

Intense curiosity

Palestinian forces could do little to stop the largely curious crowds from touring the settlements, though officials say they will take control of the areas in coming days.

"No one in the world can prevent people from expressing their joy at seeing an occupation end," said one Palestinian security official.

Many Palestinian boys, backpacks still on shoulder, skipped school in favour of the exploratory visits to the abandoned colonies that for so long were a source of their grief and misery.

In the former colony of Kfar Darom, young refugee children from the camp of Dair al-Balah played in an abandoned playground.

"It's the greatest fun we've ever had, there's nothing like this in our refugee camp," laughed 12-year-old Reem Idayn, as she slid down a slide.

Feeling free

Palestinians salvage rubble from
the settlement of Netzarim

Nearby, Palestinian security officers who had been up since 3am for the handover of the settlement lands dozed off under the shade of a large mulberry tree, while young children clamoured for a photo opportunity in an abandoned but not yet demolished sniper tower that overlooked a pockmarked UN school.

Across the now-flattened electric fence of the former colony, 53-year-old Sulayman Tawaysha continued to watch the scenes in disbelief along with his six children.  

The entire family had been up since 3am to see the soldiers leave, at which point they erupted in ululations of joy and put on fireworks display.

"I feel free, for the first time, we all feel free," said Tawaysha, as his youngest daughter, Buthoor, served coffee and date cookies to celebrate. Her mother, a newly hired headmistress, was at a local school trying in vain to convince schoolchildren to attend classes.

"Tonight will be the first time we can sit outside after sunset without the fear of being shot at by the nearby troops," added Tawaysha.

Great relief

Further south, Palestinians drove past the Abo Holi checkpoint for the first time in 6 years without having to stop and wait for orders to pass.

"I can't believe it - I spent so many miserable nights sleeping here at the checkpoint, waiting for it to open, suffering at their whim," said taxi driver Samir Dogmosh as he drove through unhindered.

In Neve Dekalim in southern Gaza, the large synagogue in the shape of a star of David, built in "memory" of the former settlement of Yamit in Sinai, was still standing.  

Inside, charred anti-disengagement literature and flyers lay strewn.

Zionist literature

Thousands thronged the beach 
of Shirat Hayam

"Let us help you to sense the magic being felt daily in this beautiful part of our homeland," read a flyer.

Beyond the former colony, Palestinians swarmed the Khan Yunis beach in the fertile and formerly fenced off enclave of Mawasi, which had been off-limits to them since the start of the Intifada.

"Today I am here to enjoy this historic day with my only son, Abdullah," said Khan Yunis resident Um Abdullah as she sat under a tin-sheet shelter erected by the seaside. Her son played in the sand nearby.

But many Palestinians, while basking in the momentary elation, expressed concerns for the future. 

Dermatologist Muna al-Farra, who has finally been able to access land her family owns in the Abo Holi junction, said she was worried about the long-term implications of Gaza being turned into a large prison.  

She loudly asked: "What was the struggle for?  Just to be able to drive from Gaza city to Rafah?"