The last Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip left Monday morning, officially ending Israel's nearly four-decade presence here and marking the start of the Palestinians' most ambitious attempt at self-rule. Before dawn, thousands of jubilant Palestinians poured in to the settlement areas, celebrating and setting fire to some of the synagogue buildings deliberately left intact by the departing troops.
The withdrawal of six remaining Israeli army battalions, comprising between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers, followed a twilight flag-lowering ceremony Sunday evening at the Israeli army's headquarters in the strip. In short, somber speeches, Israeli officers paid tribute to the soldiers and Jewish settlers who died here since Israel occupied the territory in the 1967 Middle East war, and expressed hope that the Israeli departure would improve relations with the Palestinians, who must now govern the remote strip plagued by poverty and a variety of militias.
"The military rule that began with the Six-Day War ends today," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel's Southern Command, told the small crowd assembled. "I hope that the departure of our forces from the Gaza Strip symbolizes the beginning of a period of tranquillity."
The event near Neve Dekalim, once the largest of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, concluded an operation that in less than a month evacuated 8,500 settlers, razed communities of whitewashed homes and the military installations that guarded them, and fanned a broad debate inside Israel over the future of the Jewish state.
While dissolving the military government in Gaza, the Israeli cabinet also voted 14 to 2 Sunday to leave the strip without demolishing synagogues inside settlement areas that have otherwise been reduced to rubble.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government prevailed before Israel's highest court in a case challenging its right to destroy the synagogues. Religious leaders argued that the structures should not be destroyed by Jews. Sharon, who pushed for the withdrawal from Gaza, or what he called disengagement, over strong objections from the core of his Likud Party, voted with the majority.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the decision was designed "to poke us in the eye" and places Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the difficult position of either protecting what many Palestinians describe as symbols of the occupation or demolishing religiously symbolic buildings. "If we destroy them ourselves we will be doomed and if they are desecrated we are doomed," Erekat said.
Israeli soldiers fixed signs onto the synagogues, cleared of their Torah scrolls, reading "Holy Place" in Arabic and English.
During morning celebrations punctuated by chants and gunfire, Palestinian youths set fire to at least four of the approximately two dozen synagogues left intact. In Gaza city, vehicles carrying groups of men, some of them masked, bore banners of Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which have asserted that Israel is leaving Gaza under military pressure.
Palestinian officials were already angry over Israel's decision last week to close the only crossing between Gaza and Egypt for at least six months. In protest, the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization voted unanimously Sunday to boycott an Israeli-proposed ceremony to officially hand over military control of the strip to Palestinian security forces. Israeli officials canceled the event.
"In light of their approach, we felt it just didn't make sense to participate in something that gives the impression of coordination and things going very well when in fact they have not been," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Authority's planning minister, who attended the meeting.
Palestinians said the six-month closure of the Rafah crossing along the southern border means that Israeli officials will continue monitoring all goods and people moving between Gaza and Egypt during that time at Kerem Shalom, the border nexus of Israel, Egypt and Gaza.
Israeli officials have agreed in principle to allow foreign inspectors to replace them at the Rafah crossing once improvements there are made, but said a final deal will depend on the Palestinians' ability to stop attacks on Israel.
Meanwhile, the first contingent of a projected 750 Egyptian troops deployed along the Philadelphi route on the Gaza frontier, filling in behind the departing Israeli forces.
"Instead of being happy and celebrating the Israeli departure from Gaza, they are whining and crying," Ambassador Gideon Meir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said of the Palestinians. "This will not help them build a future Palestinian state. What will the Israelis say if they are asked to make any more sacrifices? I don't know, but they may think it's not worth it if this is the result."
Palestinian officials say the Rafah crossing issue, like the continuing Israeli control of Gaza's airspace and coastline, shows that while the Israeli presence inside Gaza is ending, its wider occupation is not. Gaza is home to 1.3 million Palestinians and amounts to a small part of what has been designated as a future Palestinian state. Israel maintains its military presence in the West Bank, the heartland of that notional state.
Israeli and Palestinian officials -- under the guidance of James Wolfensohn, special envoy of the Quartet, a group made up of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- are working on ways to establish trade and passenger links between Gaza and the West Bank. So far, Israeli officials have agreed to convoys of passenger buses, and high-tech scanners will eventually allow cargo to pass out of Gaza without having to be loaded onto waiting trucks. The equipment will take a year to arrive, however.
"Occupation has nothing to do with whether the last settler or soldier has left Gaza," said Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority. "It has to do with control, and Israel still controls the Gaza Strip."