- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip — Israeli forces lowered their flag in a modest sunset ceremony yesterday and set out for home in a convoy of military vehicles and flatbed trucks, bringing a close to a 38-year military presence in the Gaza Strip.

With the last Israeli troops scheduled to be gone by dawn today, hundreds of jubilant Palestinians gathered on the outskirts of Khan Younis, poised to swarm across sand dunes to the abandoned Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim to celebrate the “liberation” of land claimed as part of a future state.

But the last full day of Israeli control in Gaza did not pass without tension. The Palestinians boycotted an afternoon military changeover ceremony in protest of Israel’s refusal to relinquish control over a border crossing to Egypt and a decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet to leave behind 19 empty synagogues.

Israeli forces went ahead on their own with a later ceremony at their Gaza command base next to Neve Dekalim, where an honor guard, speeches and the playing of the national anthem “Hatikvah” were aimed at convincing the Israeli public that the army was leaving Gaza on its own terms.

Burning garbage sent black smoke billowing into the sky and occasional spurts of gunfire sounded in the distance as a trio of Israeli generals spoke of the conclusion of a “historic era” and of their hope for peaceful relations with the Palestinians.

“We are completing the disengagement, whose purpose is to end Israel’s hold over Gaza. The Gaza division is leaving with its head held high,” said Israeli military Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

“Our exit from the strip, and our transfer of authority to the Palestinians, obligates them to rule, to enforce law and order, and to prevent terrorism,” he said.

“That is their true test. We won’t be patient with their weakness … and we won’t tolerate terror acts. They can’t escape responsibility.”

Israeli forces also withdrew from their heavily fortified outposts along the Gaza-Egypt border, a frontier riddled with smugglers’ tunnels that became a flash point during the four-year Palestinian uprising. As Israeli troops left, hundreds of Egyptian border police moved in to fill in the security vacuum.

Some 3,000 Israeli soldiers were expected to leave Gaza overnight, concluding a monthlong withdrawal during which Israel dismantled 21 Jewish settlements in the strip as well as four in the northern West Bank.

Israeli troops and police evacuated about 15,000 settlers and sympathizers. Bulldozers then flattened the residential housing in an unprecedented razing of Jewish settlements on territory handed over to the Palestinians.

However, Mr. Sharon’s Cabinet decided over the weekend not to destroy the synagogues in Gaza, an action that would have angered many devout Israelis. That decision infuriated the Palestinian leaders, who felt they were being saddled with a chore that can only bring negative publicity.

Nevertheless, a Palestinian Authority spokesman said last night that the houses of worship would be torn down to make room for housing and other structures.

Exiting the coastal strip that Israel captured from Egypt in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the military leaves behind a territory whose international legal status remains unclear.

While the Palestinians will gain unchallenged authority on the ground, they will not have full sovereignty, as Israel’s air force will control the skies and the navy will patrol the Mediterranean coast.

While Israeli officials argue that Gaza is now under Palestinian “jurisdiction,” Palestinians argue that Israel’s control of the land, sea and air frontiers still constitutes a legal occupation, with international obligations for the occupier.

The two sides have yet to resolve how Gazans will cross into Egypt, with Israel insisting on monitoring Palestinians movements between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

The lingering disputes did not dampen the spirits of residents of Khan Younis, who have lived in the shadow of Jewish settlers and the Israeli military for 38 years.

“We are full of happiness and impatient to see the Israelis rolling out of our area for good. It will be our happiest day in decades,” Sami Abu-Akar, 35, told the Reuters news agency.

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