Thousands of Palestinian security personnel swarmed into abandoned Jewish settlements on Monday, raising their flag over land captured by Israel in a war with Egypt 38 years ago, as Israeli tanks rolled out, ending a deployment steeped in bloodshed.
The day was tinged with tragedy, however, as five Palestinians drowned in once-forbidden seas off Gaza while another was killed on the border with Egypt.
Also, Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that Israel’s departure from Gaza ushered in a policy of “zero tolerance” towards continued violence as Hamas vowed to press its campaign of resistance until all Palestinian land was freed.
“From now on, it’s zero tolerance to terrorism and the army is prepared to act in every possible way,” Mofaz said without elaborating.
Time to rejoice
By contrast, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said as he toured the ruins of the former settlement of Dugit in the north of the territory: “It is time for our people to rejoice and to put an end to the tragedies, sadness and suffering.”
Abbas also told Aljazeera that much work was needed to turn Gaza into a viable territory, especially ensuring that Palestinians in Gaza be allowed contact with the outside world.
Palestinians celebrate Israel’s
He stressed that the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which may be closed for the next six months, should be opened as soon as possible to stop Gaza “turning into a big jail”.
The Palestinian Authority has welcomed the reopening of roads within the territory but stressed that Gaza Strip should be connected to the West Bank, said Shireen Abu Aqla, Aljazeera’s correspondent in Palestine.
Initial reactions to the end of occupation were of extreme joy, with Gaza City witnessing numerous celebrations, Abu Aqla said.
Using roads that had previously been blocked off to them, Palestinians celebrated inside the former colony at Netzarim in central Gaza.
This settlement – which had had effectively cut the territory in two by restricting use of the main road that runs from north to south – had been particularly detested.
Plans by Palestinian police to bar crowds from the settlements quickly disintegrated, and resistance groups hoisted flags and fired wildly into the air.
By midday, the situation had calmed, and curious Palestinians quietly toured the abandoned settlements, as feelings of newfound freedom began to sink in.
Palestinians fix a Hamas flag on
“Thousands of Gazans flocked towards the evacuated areas from daybreak, desperate to glimpse the last vestiges of an occupation built on prime real estate for decades declared off-limits to Palestinians.
Smoke spewed into the air from burning rubbish in former settlements as enormous national flags fluttered from telegraph poles while mobs of youths poured in, ransacking, looting and torching synagogues and other buildings.
The green banner of Islamic resistance group Hamas, which has declared the pullout a victory for its five-year campaign of violence, was hoisted above a ransacked synagogue in Neve Dekalim, once the largest Gaza settlements.
Around 20 masked and armed men from its rival Islamic Jihad paraded through the enclave, firing into the air as hundreds of men, women and children scavenged through the rubble of the buildings, searching for Israeli booty.
On the Gaza-Egypt border, disorder reigned as dozens of Palestinians swarmed into part of the buffer zone vacated by Israeli troops just hours before.
One Palestinian was shot dead as he approached a security fence while dozens of youngsters entered no-man’s land on the Egyptian side after toppling the barbed wire fence on top of a concrete wall that marks the frontier.
Mahmud Abbas in Rafah kisses
Egyptian authorities, who denied responsibility for the shooting, had allowed hundreds of families living in the divided town of Rafah to take part in reunions inside the buffer zone.
Israel’s Gaza divisional commander General Avi Kochavi was the last to go at 6.50am (0350 GMT), exiting through the metal gates of the Kissufim crossing where military bulldozers dug up mounds of earth to block the entrance.
“From now on, the responsibility for what happens in the Gaza Strip lies in the hands of the Palestinian Authority,” Kochavi said.
Israel’s troop withdrawal follows the tumultuous clearance of all settlers from Gaza three weeks ago, an operation that pitted Jew against Jew and added to the domestic political pressure on Sharon.
Sand and sun
By once-forbidden shores of the Mediterranean reserved solely for Jewish settlers, more than a thousand Palestinians luxuriated in the sand and sun, swimming in choppy waters and relaxing with their families on the beach.
Despite the end of military rule, the Palestinians insist the Gaza Strip remains occupied as Israel retains control of its land borders, air space and territorial waters.
The international community has welcomed the withdrawal as an opportunity to revive the Middle East peace process after five years of violence which has left nearly 5000 people dead, most of them Palestinians.