Thousands of Palestinians rushed into the former Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip on Monday in a mood of elation and opportunism. Some scavenged for items of potential value or souvenirs of Israel's departure, while others trashed abandoned synagogues that had been left standing when settlers departed.
Israeli troops had left overnight, ending a 38-year military hold on the Gaza Strip and the 21 former Jewish communities. The Israeli government had razed many of the buildings after settlers departed.
Men and women, young and old, descended on the settlements soon after the last Israeli soldier passed through the Kissufim crossing a little before 7 a.m.
"The children want to know what happened to the trees," said Yasser Nawas, 36, an engineer from the Nusseirat refugee camp, who took his four small children Monday morning to get an early glimpse.
Nawas walked in with his small phalanx of children, under skies filled with acrid black smoke, along roads lined with uprooted pine trees. Amid piles of rubble that last month were comfortable homes, Palestinian men collected coils of cable, aluminum window frames, plastic water tanks and streetlights, loading them onto donkey-drawn carts.
"I brought them to know the place they have been deprived of," Nawas said of the children. "I'm not surprised by the destruction I've seen. But I am shocked by these uncivilized acts. I was expecting celebrations, something for the kids to see."
Although abandoning the territory, Israel will maintain control over its border with Gaza, and Palestinian officials say that means the occupation has not ended. But settlement streets were taken over by various armed militias, all claiming a share of credit for the unilateral Israeli departure from land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
Egyptian troops, meanwhile, have deployed along Gaza's southern border. Palestinian officials said Egyptian border guards shot and killed a Palestinian man identified as Nafiz Ateyah, 34. Officials said the shooting occurred while Egyptian police were trying to control crowds along the Gaza side of the border in the city of Rafah, where dozens of Palestinians managed to cross Monday after months of being prevented from doing so. Egypt denied that its border guards shot the man, according to the Reuters news agency.
In some of the former settlements, Palestinians scuffled occasionally amid the rubble, prompting police to intervene with batons and warning shots. Although the day was largely free of violence, the synagogue buildings that the Israeli government decided to leave intact were vandalized, and at least four of about two dozen were set ablaze.
Palestinian authorities later bulldozed some of the synagogue buildings, symbols to many Palestinians of the Israeli occupation. Israeli officials criticized the Palestinian Authority for failing to protect the buildings, including the one in the largest former settlement, Neve Dekalim, where the interior walls bore scorch marks from fires set early in the day.
In the early afternoon, a noisy convoy carrying Mahmoud Zahar, a senior official of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, rolled through the settlement's torched gatehouse. Zahar's pickup truck was filled with Hamas gunmen and was followed by a truck blaring martial anthems and announcing Zahar's arrival to thousands of Palestinians.
Shattered glass crunched under the feet of Zahar's entourage as he entered the synagogue building. Few Palestinians paused from prying electrical cord from the walls or smashing free an air-conditioning unit as Zahar passed. Someone handed him a hammer, which he swung vigorously against a wall. "Our resistance has succeeded in ending the . . . resistance in Gaza," Zahar said, referring to Israel. "This means that this first step will be followed by a second step." The next step, he said, was to rebuild Gaza and wage "an effective armed resistance in the West Bank," the heartland of what has been designated as a future Palestinian state.
Across the strip, lines of cars clogged roads blocked for years by Israeli checkpoints and barricades. Palestinians pushed aside cement blocks and coils of razor wire to open up old roads and make new ones through dunes and marshy valleys.
In the former settlement of Kfar Darom, Palestinian soldiers watched over the abandoned synagogue, the scene of a dramatic stand by Israeli settlers last month. Holes had been punched in its walls, and insulation dangled from the ceiling from the work of vandals earlier in the day.
Soldiers guarded about 4,000 greenhouses that form the backbone of the strip's agricultural industry, but the large salad factory in Kfar Darom stood unwatched. Scores of Palestinians ransacked the large building, which once employed many Kfar Darom residents and supplied salad to dozens of Israeli restaurants.
For the first time in decades, the dirt road leading from the coastal highway to the former central settlement of Netzarim filled with Palestinians, who made a raucous parade on foot and by donkey cart and SUV into the former settlement. "This is subhuman," one man grumbled as he watched scores of people sift through ashes and scrap heaps.
Mohammed Siam pinched a 7.62mm shell casing from an Israeli machine gun between his fingers. "I will make a medal of it," said Siam, 27, of Gaza City. "I'll tell everyone I took it out of Netzarim."
Mohammed Jadili, an interior designer from the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitun, clutched a small rosebush flecked with pink buds as he watched a group of Palestinian youth scale the dome of the synagogue building. Hours later, it was demolished by Palestinian bulldozers.
"In my house, I will plant this," Jadili said. "And remember the occupation."