Palestinians Rejoice, Loot as Israel Wraps Up Pullout; Synagogues Torched during Celebrations

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Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip - Euphoric Palestinians celebrated the exit of the last Israeli soldiers from Gaza yesterday by swarming into former Jewish settlements, frolicking in the sea at previously restricted beaches and spilling over the border into Egypt.

Despite Palestinian Authority pledges to keep Gazans out of the abandoned Israeli settlements for a few days, the Palestinian security forces did not prevent militants from torching synagogue buildings and firing guns in celebration, while looters made off with truckloads of debris.

Television footage of militants, policemen and civilians ransacking the settlements shocked Israelis and underscored the difficulty Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have in establishing law and order in the Gaza Strip.

"I think this is unacceptable behavior from our people," said Khan Younis Mayor Osama Alfara, who had just walked through what used to be the neighboring settlement of Neve Dekalim. "But our people want to be sure that there is no return of the Israelis, so they are taking some things as a memory."

Palestinian and Egyptian soldiers along Gaza's border with the Sinai Peninsula were overwhelmed by hundreds of residents from Rafah - a Palestinian city that straddles the boundary - who made their way to the Egyptian side, according to the Web site of the Ha'aretz newspaper.

A 38-year-old Palestinian was killed in the tumult, with Egyptian border police and Palestinian police accusing each other of responsibility.

After Israel abandoned the heavily fortified Philadelphi border corridor aimed at preventing weapons smugglers, Egypt deployed border police to patrol the region for infiltrators and illegal arms traders.

Mr. Abbas pledged to do all in his power to put an end to border violations. "The penetration of the border is completely unacceptable, and we will move to stop it," he said.

Israel concluded a monthlong evacuation from Gaza early yesterday, as a convoy of armored vehicles rumbled back over the border and the Gaza division commander, Brig. Gen. Aviv Cochavi, closed a gate in Israel's security barrier that surrounds the strip to the north and east.

Many Palestinians stayed up through the night in anticipation of the first hours of freedom. In pre-dawn hours, many Gazans had crossed over into the abandoned settlements. Hours later, tens of thousands of smiling Palestinians began making their way into land that many of them had never touched. …