Palestinians rush into the new Gaza

The last Israeli soldier left Gaza Monday, ending Israel's 38-year occupation in the strip.

Nearly every Palestinian who could Monday flooded into lands Israel had occupied for 38 years, their mood pulsing with celebration tinged with frustration.

Synagogues in several of the largest settlements in Gaza, which Israel did not demolish, were burned or bulldozed, a move condemned by Israel's foreign minister as "a barbarous act by people who have no respect for holy places."

The Palestinian Authority (PA) had insisted Israel demolish the houses of worship along with the homes of 8,500 settlers it evacuated last month, complaining that Israel's refusal to do so left the Palestinians in a "no-win situation" because the buildings would prove impossible to protect.

The cycle of blame and counter-blame is symbolic of what may be the direction of any return to negotiations. Talk is not of bridge-building, but of cutting losses and calculating gains, underscoring the gap in expectations about the land transfer and its role in setting the stage for future peace talks.

"We don't want them to leave behind anything that will remind of us of the Israeli occupation," says Mohammed Farouk, a high school student carrying a rusty mortar for memories. It was a bit of old ammunition that he, like many other young men, picked up as they scavenged for raw materials - from wiring and pipes to wood beams and broken chairs.

But many other Palestinians were disappointed at the way the day unfolded. As people picked and plucked at the ruins here, a Palestinian policeman ran to a lamp post waving his night stick. He yelled to one young person who was already halfway up the pole to leave the light in place.

"We want to protect things because it's in our interest, but there are people who want to destroy everything," complained Lieut. Izzadin Najar, sweating and breathless from chasing teenagers.

From 2 a.m. to 3 a.m., he says, the Palestinian police ringed the synagogue and tried to stop it from being damaged, but were quickly overrun. "There was a huge number of people and we couldn't control it," he says. "I'm unhappy with what I see because I wanted everything done in a civilized way. What will the world think about us?"

Mr. Najar had hoped that the Palestinians would be able to present a unified voice at such an important moment. But instead, an array of flags flew from synagogues and cars - as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PLFP) all tried to claim a share of the credit for Israel's withdrawal. "We should have be flying one flag, not many," Najar says.

The overwhelming majority of Palestinians, according to a poll released Sunday, believe that armed resistance caused the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

According to the poll, carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 62 percent said attacks from Gaza against Israel should end after the withdrawal, while 35 percent said attacks should continue.

"It is a step toward freedom," says Mr. Farouk, the high school student. But his friends scoff and say it's ultimately a sad day. Palestinian aspirations for a state that includes the West Bank and a part of Jerusalem still seem far off, says one.

"What joy is there without that? Even in Gaza, we're still governed by the Israelis from the air, by the sea," says Ismail, who would only give his first name. "It's not enough."

But what isn't enough for Palestinians has been off-putting for many Israelis. An adviser to Mr. Sharon says Israelis will not be left with an appetite for making further gestures anytime soon.

"I think Israelis felt that by completing the withdrawal from Gaza, they had created an opportunity for peace for the Palestinians to seize upon," says Dore Gold, Sharon's adviser. "And what they saw was synagogues in flames, and that's something with a very ominous tone for the success of any future negotiations."

It was not only in the emptied Jewish enclaves in Gaza where the crush of Palestinians celebrating raised concerns. An Egyptian border guard shot and killed a Palestinian teenager along the Gaza-Egypt border Monday.

The shooting occurred after dozens of Palestinians rushed the wall along the border crossing at Rafah. Egyptian security forces allowed scores of Egyptians and Palestinians to flow through the border to mark the handover. Israel and Egypt had reached an agreement in which 750 Egyptian policemen would guard the route separating Gaza and Egypt, to allay Israeli concerns about Palestinian militants smuggling weapons into Gaza.

In Neve Dekalim, the twin synagogues that were the rallying point for fervent Jewish settlers resisting the evacuation a few weeks ago was crowded Monday with Palestinians scavenging whatever they could carry. A Hebrew poster signing the praises of the messiah was spraypainted with graffiti saying, "Yes to Islam."

Inside the former sanctuary, the floor was littered with shattered glass. Young men in the rafters with makeshift pick-axes sent debris and window panes crashing.

"We have been waiting for 38 years. What do you expect from me?" says Ahmed Ikheya from the third floor rafter. "We are not a destructive people, but we want to end the occupation and we don't want any memory of it."

Outside what used to be the regional council building of the Gush Katif settlement, a few Palestinian troops guarded against looters. "It is our mission to protect these buildings, but as you can see we are not very successful," says Maj. Mohammad Mansour. "The Palestinian resistance has more authority than the Palestinian Authority."

Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Gaza.

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