NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (Reuters) â€” Jubilant Palestinians planted flags on the rubble of Jewish settlements and set synagogues ablaze on Monday as Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.
“This is a day of happiness and joy that the Palestinian people have not witnessed for a century,” President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Gaza City.
Palestinian forces waving victory signs took over while tanks and armoured vehicles trundled out in the dark, for the first time giving up settlements on land Palestinians want for a state and leaving them a volatile testing ground for statehood.
“The mission has been completed,” said Brigadier Aviv Kochavi after the gates closed at the main crossing point. “Israel’s presence of 38 years has come to an end.”
In chaotic scenes on the Egypt-Gaza frontier after Israeli forces withdrew, a Palestinian man was shot dead. Palestinian witnesses said he was killed by Egyptian border guards. Egypt denied this.
Rancour over the fate of the settlers’ synagogues clouded hopes the pullout would help revive Israeli-Palestinian peace-making as Washington wants.
Attacking what they saw as symbols of hated occupation, youths set ablaze several of the houses of worship left behind in 21 settlements evacuated last month under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to “disengage” from conflict.
Palestinians were furious when Sharon’s Cabinet decided to leave synagogues intact, under pressure from rabbis whose support could be key in a power struggle. Adding to tensions, Israel demanded on Monday that the buildings be preserved.
Removing Gaza’s 8,500 settlers has won Sharon international accolades.
But while Palestinians welcome the withdrawal, they fear Sharon is trading Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, for a permanent hold on larger areas of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 Jewish settlers live isolated from 2.4 million Arabs.
Palestinians were also angry that Israel, citing security reasons, will continue to control Gaza’s border crossings, airspace and waters and say the occupation is far from over.
Thousands of Palestinians brought families to nose around former settlements, licking ice creams and sucking on sweets.
“Before, this was a symbol of fear and evil. Today it’s a place to visit and a source of happiness,” said building worker Abdullah Salah, 35, in the biggest settlement of Neve Dekalim.
In demolished enclaves in north Gaza, Palestinians scavenged for everything from roof tiles to bathtubs.
With the departure of Israeli forces that had maintained strict control along the Egypt-Gaza border, thousands crossed the fence line both ways, reuniting with friends and relatives.
Egyptian guards at first stood by but witnesses said they later fired to disperse the crowds, killing a man in his 30s.
In Cairo, a presidential spokesman said Palestinians had unleashed volleys of celebratory gunfire in the air.
The flood over the border seemed to make a mockery of Israel’s efforts to keep hold of Gaza’s crossings with Egypt for the near term. Under a deal with Israel, Egypt had deployed special border police forces to stop arms smuggling to Gaza.
Israeli troops cheered and hugged one another as they crossed out of Gaza, scene of some of the worst bloodshed since a Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000.
Israeli commanders had first planned to bypass poor and densely populated Gaza in the 1967 war. Even after capturing it, some Israeli leaders expressed reservations about ruling a territory seen by many Israelis as a costly liability.
President Abbas’ first task will be to enforce order and rein in factions which refuse to disarm. Israel has threatened massive retaliation if attacks from Gaza continue.
“They can wave any flag they want, but we expect the Palestinian Authority to take full responsibility,” said the general commanding the pullout, Dan Harel.
Abbas told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that by year end: “I will be able to control the chaos in Gaza.”
Fighters were among the first to scramble into the settlements, trying to plant their faction’s flags on the highest ground. At Abbas’ behest, factions kept to a seven-month-old ceasefire to smooth the Israeli pullout.
“Four years of our resistance have done more than 10 years of negotiations,” said one masked men from the Islamic Hamas group, posing a growing political challenge to Abbas.
Rightist Israeli opponents of the withdrawal had called the evacuation of Gaza’s settlers a capitulation to the factions. Many settlers saw Gaza as a biblical birthright, but most Israelis were happy to see the back of it.
“There is no doubt our stay in Gaza was a historic error, and I am proud we found the strength to rectify this error,” said Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres.
But settlers said they hoped to return one day and rebuild.
Only synagogues and public buildings were left standing. Palestinians were angry at Israel’s decision to leave the synagogues, torn between wanting to erase emblems of Israel and uncomfortable at being seen destroying places of worship.
Israelis expressed anger at the destruction of the synagogues, which the army itself had originally planned to demolish. Sharon adviser Dore Gold said: “Setting them on fire isn’t a way of creating a new environment for a hopeful future.”
Palestinian officials said all would be demolished. But David Baker, an official in Sharon’s office, said: “We expect the Palestinians to leave the structures intact, untouched and preserved.”