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Palestinians celebrate new era in Gaza Strip

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—In gestures big and small, Palestinians began a new era in the Gaza Strip Monday, marking the end of 38 years of Israeli military rule with flag raisings and destruction.

Just after sunrise, Maj. Mohammed Baraka stood at attention while his soldiers raised the Palestinian flag over the ruins of Neve Dekalim. Nearby, masked militants with machine guns planted the flag of Islamic Jihad on the roof of what had been the settlement's synagogue.

Earlier, emotional Palestinians converged at the former Israeli settlement of Netzarim, outside Gaza City, and took turns swinging a sledgehammer into the columns of the town's synagogue before setting its roof ablaze.

"This is history," said a 21-year-old Palestinian who identified himself only as Abu Khalid as he took a few swings with the sledgehammer. "I have returned to my land."

Israeli leaders denounced the attacks as barbaric, but Palestinian officials said Israel should have demolished the buildings as planned if it had wanted the former synagogues to receive special treatment.

Israel originally had pledged to bulldoze most of the buildings in the settlements, including the synagogues, but on Sunday, even as Israeli troops were streaming out of Gaza, the Israeli Cabinet voted not to dismantle the 26 former synagogues and asked the Palestinian Authority to protect them, a request the Palestinians rejected.

Throughout the day, Palestinians flooded into the 21 former Israeli settlements that had served as volatile flashpoints for deadly clashes between the 8,500 Jewish residents living under military protection in Gaza and the surrounding 1.3 million Palestinians.

Families with children who had been blocked by the Israeli settlements from getting to nearby Mediterranean beaches dove into the warm waters for the first time in years. Convoys of masked Islamic militants carrying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and machine guns cruised through the settlements praising God. And scavengers with pickup trucks and donkey carts picked through the rubble of demolished homes, pulling out coils of copper, twisted aluminum, metal framing and even lampposts to sell.

Palestinian forces took few steps to stop anyone from carting away anything they could take.

"We want to get rid of them anyway," shrugged Maj. Raid Abu Odei as he walked by teams of Palestinians methodically dismantling roofs made of ceramic tile and wood in Morag.

At midday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a tour of one of the three northernmost abandoned settlements and hailed the pullout as a historic step on his people's road to nationhood.

On Monday, with few other buildings left standing, the synagogues—which had been the final strongholds last month for Israeli activists opposed to their country's plans to leave the Gaza Strip—became targets for many celebrating Palestinians, some of whom had waited their entire lives to get inside the settlements.

Among the first to bear the brunt was the synagogue in Netzarim, where hundreds of Palestinians firing machine guns into the air torched the building and pulled it apart in the hours between midnight and the morning call to prayer.

Curling black smoke poured out of the sides of the synagogue and religious school in Neve Dekalim, with its signature Star of David facade, as militants fired machine guns into the air to celebrate the first time the region has been free of Israeli soldiers since they took control of the area from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War.

"This synagogue did not exist before 1967 and now it is being destroyed," said a young masked Islamic Jihad gunman on the roof of the building as the acrid smoke poured through the rooftop windows. "This is a lesson to its builders that nothing will last, especially under occupation."

Once the celebrations taper off, Palestinian officials will have to turn their attention to the much more difficult tasks of unifying competing military groups in the Gaza Strip and transforming the former settlements into new homes and businesses.

The challenges facing Abbas were evident on Monday as the carloads of competing militant groups cruised around the settlements planting their flags next to each other on rooftops, fences and traffic circles.

More troubling for Abbas, however, was the firing of two Qassam rockets from inside the Gaza Strip at nearby Israeli communities. There were no casualties.

Militants had largely held their fire during the pullout, and Israeli officials have warned that they will strike back much more harshly at Palestinians who attack Israel from the Gaza Strip now that they have left the region.

Those issues will come later. On Monday, parents showed their children around the settlements. Children played on rubble.

Fatima Wadi, 52, stepped out of her home in the nearby refugee camp and headed for the beach. As she passed the burning Neve Dekalim synagogue she was asked if the violence of the previous years had been worth it.

"It achieved a lot," she said. "Without the fighting this would not have happened."

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

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

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