NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip, AP -Ecstatic crowds of Palestinians flooded into empty Jewish settlements early Monday, setting abandoned synagogues on fire in a chaotic celebration of the end of 38 years of Israeli military rule over the Gaza Strip.
Plans by Palestinian police to bar crowds from the settlements quickly disintegrated, and militant groups hoisted flags and fired wildly into the air, illustrating the weakness of the security forces and concerns about their ability to control growing chaos in Gaza. The pullout is widely seen as a test for Palestinian aspirations of statehood.
Just after sunrise, the last column of Israeli tanks rumbled out of Gaza. Troops locked a metal gate and hoisted their national flag, removed from the Gaza military headquarters, on the Israeli side of the border.
"The mission has been completed, and an era has ended," said Israel”s Gaza commander, Brig. Gen. Kochavi, the last soldier to leave the strip.
As soldiers poured out of Gaza throughout the night, jubilant Palestinians rushed into the abandoned settlements, turning Gaza”s night sky orange as fires roared across the settlements. Women shrieked in joy, teens set off fireworks and crowds chanted "God is great."
"Today is a day of joy and happiness that our people were deprived of in the past century," said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, adding that the Palestinians still have a long path toward statehood. He denounced Israeli rule in Gaza as "aggression, injustice, humiliation, killing and settlement activity."
Palestinians hope to build their state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War — but fear that Israel will not hand over additional territory. They say Israel”s occupation of Gaza has not ended because it retains control over borders and the air space.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he remains committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state, but linked any further withdrawals to Abbas” ability to rein in militant groups.
"Israel has done its share and reiterates its call for the Palestinians to follow through, meaning their preventing terror against Israel and maintaining law and order in the territories under their control," said David Baker, an official in Sharon”s office.
Abbas refuses to confront militants, insisting he can persuade them to disarm peacefully. He has outlined an ambitious plan to reconstruct Gaza”s shattered economy, an effort he believes will bolster forces of moderation. But he faces a difficult task in Gaza, where militants and armed gangs operate freely and wield considerable power.
As Israel completed its pullout, Palestinian jeeps decorated with the flags of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups stopped just near the border and a group of masked gunmen waved their weapons before Palestinian police moved them away.
Pointing behind him at the border, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel”s southern command, said the pullout presented an important opportunity for the Palestinians to take control of their future.
"The responsibility belongs to the Palestinian Authority," he said. "We hope that they will know how to rise to the responsibility, and enable all of us to leave in peace and security."
Palestinian authorities had promised an orderly transition after the pullout, but the calls for calm were ignored. Police stood by helplessly early Monday as gunmen raised flags of militant groups and crowds smashed what was left in the ruins or walked off with doors, window frames, toilets and scrap metals.
After rushing into the settlements, Palestinians set fire to empty synagogues in the Morag, Kfar Darom and Netzarim settlements, as well as a Jewish seminary in Neve Dekalim.
In Netzarim, two young Palestinians waving flags stomped on the smoldering debris outside the synagogue, and others took turns hitting the building with a large hammer.
"They (Israelis) destroyed our homes and our mosques. Today it is our turn to destroy theirs," said a man in Neve Dekalim who gave his name only as Abu Ahmed.
Israel removed some 8,500 Gaza settlers from their homes in 21 settlements last month, and razed homes and most buildings in the communities. However, the Israeli Cabinet decided at the last minute Sunday to leave 19 synagogue buildings intact, drawing complaints from the Palestinians and criticism from the United States. In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Israeli decision "puts the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does."
After daybreak, the situation was largely calm. Dozens of curious Palestinians moved into Netzarim to get a glimpse of what was once a heavily fortified enclave in central Gaza. People inspected the rubble, and school children climbed on the ruins of a building. Environmental workers gathered samples of rubble for testing.
Several people held posters of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died last year, and pictures of the Hamas leaders killed by Israel, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
"Today is the beginning of a new era. The battle is still ahead of us. Gaza is only the first step," said Mohammed al-Hindi, the leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, who was accompanied by dozens of followers. "The beginning will be when we liberate Jerusalem and the West Bank."
Abdullah Franji, a top official in Abbas” Fatah party, put a Palestinian flag around his shoulders as he toured the northern settlement of Elei Sinai.
"Today our people are smelling freedom," he said. "We hope that our joy will be complete with free borders, with a connection to the West Bank and to have Gaza as the first step toward achieving the Palestinian state."
The withdrawal, code-named "Last Watch," was overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian disputes, including over border arrangements and movement between Gaza and the West Bank. The two territories lie on opposite sides of Israel.
The Palestinians want full control over the Gaza-Egypt border after Israel”s withdrawal, saying free movement of people and goods is essential for rebuilding Gaza”s shattered economy. Israel wants to retain some control, at least temporarily, fearing that militants will smuggle weapons into Gaza.