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Israel ends Gaza Strip occupation, but leaves synagogues standing

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Israel lowered its national flag in the Gaza Strip for the last time Sunday as soldiers streamed out of the former Jewish settlements, officially ending 38 years of military rule over 1.3 million Palestinians in the narrow Mediterranean region.

Hours later, thousands of Palestinians streamed into the long-fortified Israeli enclaves for the first time early Monday.

Palestinian leaders staged a last-minute boycott of a ceremonial handover to protest Israel's continued control of the Gaza Strip borders.

The unresolved dispute over when and how Palestinians can enter and leave the Gaza Strip threatens to become the first major post-settlement shutdown crisis, said Diana Buttu, a legal adviser with the Palestinian Authority.

The handover was also clouded when Israel's Cabinet put an eleventh-hour halt to court-approved plans to demolish 26 synagogues in the Gaza Strip and asked Palestinian officials to respect and preserve the former houses of worship.

"This is a trap," complained Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister who has been overseeing negotiations with Israel over the pullout. "They want to create a crisis in the Palestinian Authority and create an excuse for extremists."

Late Sunday, Toufiq Abu Khossa, spokesman for Palestinian Interior Ministry, said that the Palestinian Authority now plans to demolish the synagogues and all other public buildings left behind by the Israelis.

The ceremonial lowering of the Israeli flag just before sunset Sunday marked the last official act of the nation's military control of the Gaza Strip, a densely populated area about twice the size of Washington, D.C.

In the course of a month, Israeli police and soldiers forcibly removed thousands of recalcitrant Gaza Strip settlers, razed their houses in all 21 settlements and dismantled the military infrastructure that protected the enclaves for decades.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushed the plan as a way to better protect Israelis and preserve the country's hold over more-coveted settlements in the occupied West Bank.

During the pullout, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tried and failed to work out agreements on reopening the Gaza Strip airport, linking the coastal strip with the West Bank, and opening up the borders so Palestinians could more freely enter and leave the area.

Last week, Israel decided to close the Gaza Strip's southern border crossing with Egypt for six months, a move that prompted Palestinian officials to boycott Sunday's handover ceremony as a "superficial celebration," Dahlan said.

Despite the simmering dispute, Dahlan called Israel's withdrawal "revolutionary" and said the Palestinian Authority is preparing to transform the former settlements—which occupied nearly one-fifth of the Gaza Strip land—into new economic engines.

In agreement with the Palestinians, Israel preserved many of the public buildings and the settlement greenhouses that once employed thousands of Gaza Strip residents.

But Israel was expected to raze the settlement synagogues, and the government fought for the right to do so all the way to the high court, which gave the military the green light last week.

However, Israeli officials faced emotional appeals from the religious community not to demolish the buildings, and the public pressure prompted the cabinet to vote Sunday, 14-2 not to destroy the structures.

Although synagogues are stripped of their religious sanctity once the Torah scrolls and other religious relics are removed, Jewish leaders worried that the demolition of the buildings could set a dangerous precedent for other nations.

"The symbolism of Israeli soldiers demolishing synagogues was something the Israeli public simply couldn't stomach," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Cabinet officials urged Palestinian leaders to protect the buildings, with some suggesting that they be turned into centers for peace or religious tolerance.

But Dahlan said the synagogues would be treated just like other public buildings in the settlements, and criticized Israeli officials for putting the Palestinian Authority in the difficult position of having to protect them.

Buttu said she wouldn't be shocked if Palestinians who flock to the settlements in the coming days took their decades of frustration and anger out on the structures.

"I wouldn't be surprised if people want to loot the buildings," Buttu said. "These are the symbols of the military occupation."

Buttu said the Palestinian Authority is making plans to use the rubble in the settlements to build new monuments to Palestinian martyrs killed during the Israeli military occupation and erect a new national museum. Some of it will be given to Palestinian artists for their own work.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

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