- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Euphoric Palestinians celebrated the exit of the last Israeli soldiers from Gaza yesterday by swarming into former Jewish settlements, frolicking in the sea at previously restricted beaches and spilling over the border into Egypt.

Despite Palestinian Authority pledges to keep Gazans out of the abandoned Israeli settlements for a few days, the Palestinian security forces did not prevent militants from torching synagogue buildings and firing guns in celebration, while looters made off with truckloads of debris.

Television footage of militants, policemen and civilians ransacking the settlements shocked Israelis and underscored the difficulty Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have in establishing law and order in the Gaza Strip.

“I think this is unacceptable behavior from our people,” said Khan Younis Mayor Osama Alfara, who had just walked through what used to be the neighboring settlement of Neve Dekalim. “But our people want to be sure that there is no return of the Israelis, so they are taking some things as a memory.”

Palestinian and Egyptian soldiers along Gaza’s border with the Sinai Peninsula were overwhelmed by hundreds of residents from Rafah — a Palestinian city that straddles the boundary — who made their way to the Egyptian side, according to the Web site of the Ha’aretz newspaper.

A 38-year-old Palestinian was killed in the tumult, with Egyptian border police and Palestinian police accusing each other of responsibility.

After Israel abandoned the heavily fortified Philadelphi border corridor aimed at preventing weapons smugglers, Egypt deployed border police to patrol the region for infiltrators and illegal arms traders.

Mr. Abbas pledged to do all in his power to put an end to border violations. “The penetration of the border is completely unacceptable, and we will move to stop it,” he said.

Israel concluded a monthlong evacuation from Gaza early yesterday, as a convoy of armored vehicles rumbled back over the border and the Gaza division commander, Brig. Gen. Aviv Cochavi, closed a gate in Israel’s security barrier that surrounds the strip to the north and east.

Many Palestinians stayed up through the night in anticipation of the first hours of freedom. In pre-dawn hours, many Gazans had crossed over into the abandoned settlements. Hours later, tens of thousands of smiling Palestinians began making their way into land that many of them had never touched.

Amid the rubble around Neve Dekalim, which had been the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza, flags from the militant group Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Authority and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine were hoisted above synagogues and other public buildings.

A detachment of Palestinian security officers congregated outside the regional council building to ensure that Palestinians didn’t destroy public structures left by the Israelis.

“It’s our mission to protect these buildings and to prevent their destruction,” said Mohammed Mansour, a member of the national security force. “But as you can see, we aren’t very successful. It’s a shame.”

On the plaza outside the Neve Dekalim synagogue, mule-drawn carts were piled with heaps of scrap metal. Inside, the Sephardic sanctuary was littered with shards of glass as men with homemade pickaxes smashed windowpanes in the third-floor rafters.

“We’ve been waiting 38 years, what do you expect from me,” said Ahmed Ikhleya between blows at the synagogue. “We want to end the occupation, and we don’t want any memory of the occupiers.”

In the southern portion of the strip, just west of Neve Dekalim, thousands of adults and children enjoyed their first trip to the local beach in five years.

During the latest Palestinian uprising, the Israeli army barred the residents of Khan Younis from driving five minutes through the Jewish settlement block to the beach, and instead forced them to travel hours to Gaza City.

Yesterday, the children splashed through the surf, using foam from former settlement ceilings as flotation devices.

“We were deprived of smelling clean air,” said Fayrouz Figawi, a mother of 12 sitting under a hut of corrugated metal collected at a settlement. “When they deprived us of the beach, we sat at home listening to bullets and tank shells.”

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