Last Israeli Troops Exit Gaza Strip

The last Israeli soldiers leave Gaza early Monday, ending 38 years of Israeli occupation. Thousands of Palestinians rushed into the area that used to be the Jewish settlements in Gaza, and burned at least four synagogues.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The last Israeli soldiers pulled out of the Gaza Strip early today, ending 38 years of Israeli occupation. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called it a day of happiness and joy. Thousands of Palestinians rushed into the areas vacated by Israel, waving flags and cheering. They also set fire to at least four abandoned synagogues. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

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LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

A short Israeli military ceremony in Gaza last night marked the end of 38 years of Israeli occupation. As the Israeli flag was lowered, Brigadier General Dan Harel, the commander of the troops in Gaza, said today marks a chance for a new beginning in Israeli-Palestinian relations

Brigadier General DAN HAREL: (Through Translator) This is a historic opportunity for a better future for both peoples. I hope that the withdrawal of our troops from Gaza is the beginning of a period of quiet and peace with our neighbors. With this, we must prepare for any security challenge, whether defensive or offensive, to continue to preserve the security of Israeli citizens.

GRADSTEIN: This ceremony ended with the Israeli national anthem.

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GRADSTEIN: A handover ceremony involving Palestinian security officials was canceled after the Palestinians declined to attend. During the night, Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rumbled out of Gaza, and just after 7 AM local time, Israeli soldiers locked a gate at the Kissufim crossing between Israel and Gaza. The flag that had been lowered a few hours earlier was raised on the Israeli side of the border. Gaza, with its 1.4 million Palestinians, is now under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

As the Israeli troops left, thousands of Palestinians rushed into areas that had been forbidden to them for nearly four decades. They fired in the air and waved Palestinian flags and flags from the Islamist Hamas movement. They also rushed into the abandoned synagogues and set at least four on fire. The Israeli Cabinet yesterday voted not to demolish the synagogues before the troops pulled out, but had removed all religious objects from the buildings. Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said Israel is disappointed with the Palestinian behavior.

Mr. DORE GOLD (Israeli Government Spokesman): There was tremendous hope that perhaps the Palestinians would begin anew, would relate to us with maybe the language of peacemaking, but what we got was the language of flames and synagogues afire.

GRADSTEIN: Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the torching of the synagogues was, quote, "very unfortunate." He said Palestinian officials had asked Israel to demolish the synagogues themselves just so this would not happen. At the same time, Erekat said the Israeli withdrawal is an opportunity to resume the peace process.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Cabinet Minister): I believe today, we stand a chance to stand up tall and say that we can resume the permanent status negotiations. We can shoot for the end game. We can begin the process of rebuilding the trust and the confidence and the healing, and I believe this is not wishful thinking.

GRADSTEIN: Erekat also said that Israel must first allow the Palestinian Authority to control Gaza's airspace and borders, such as the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Israel closed that crossing last week for six months while it is upgraded and new security equipment is installed. In the meantime, Israel will not have a presence there. Meanwhile, all traffic is being routed to another crossing controlled by Israel. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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