Palestinians Flood Into Abandoned Gaza Areas

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Palestinians celebrated in the abandoned Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip today, just hours after the last Israeli soldier left the territory, following 38 years of occupation.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In the Gaza Strip today, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas planted a Palestinian flag in the soil of an abandoned Jewish settlement and called it a day of joy. There were scenes of jubilation throughout the territory after Israeli troops completed their withdrawal from Gaza early this morning. It marks the end of an occupation that lasted some 38 years, though Israel still controls access to Gaza's borders, airspace and coastlines. NPR's Ivan Watson reports.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Plumes of acrid smoke rose from abandoned Jewish settlements today. Some fires had been set by withdrawing Israeli soldiers; others, by the flag-waving Palestinians, who streamed in overnight in their wake. Until yesterday, the Israeli checkpoints and fortifications around the Netzarim settlement nearly bisected Gaza, preventing Palestinians easy access from the north to the south of the occupied territory.

(Soundbite of celebration)

WATSON: But today the earth berms and barbed wire around Netzarim were overrun by thousands of jubilant, oddly curious Palestinians. They picked through the rubble of settlers' homes, which were all demolished by departing Israeli troops. Among those exploring the ruined settlement was an unemployed man named Abdul Ziyad(ph). He said he was overjoyed to be walking on what had always been forbidden territory.

Mr. ABDUL ZIYAD: (Through Translator) I couldn't believe myself that I'm entering a land that I haven't been in for 38 years, like two years before I was born.

WATSON: Palestinians quickly got to work in the former settlement, pulling scrap metal and wood out of the destroyed houses and tearing apart and carting away street lights, telephone exchange boxes and any other Israeli infrastructure they could get their hands on, including entire trees out of mango groves.

(Soundbite of celebration)

WATSON: On a hill overlooking the settlement, several gun-toting militants of the Islamist group Hamas stood on what was left of the domed roof of a synagogue and posed for photographs.

(Soundbite of celebration)

WATSON: Overnight Palestinians torched the synagogue. The Palestinian Authority and the US State Department both criticized the last-minute decision by the Israeli government yesterday to leave more than 20 synagogues standing after the Israeli troop withdrawal. This bizarre scene here, simultaneously joyous and vengeful, became all the more strange when an ice cream truck arrived, carefully threading its way through the rubble before stopping next to eager customers.

(Soundbite of ice cream truck music)

WATSON: Not far away Palestinian police and soldiers watched and sometimes joined in as crowds looted Israeli- and Palestinian-owned factories at the abandoned Araz Industrial Zone.

(Soundbite of police vehicle)

WATSON: Thing changed in the afternoon, though, with the arrival of reinforcements and Samir Halili(ph), an official from the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. SAMIR HALILI (Palestinian Authority): I think in this area we had some problems. The number of security forces that were here to protect the area were much less than we should have.

WATSON: The police cracked down, and the looting stopped. But the chaos underscores the difficulty the Palestinian Authority will have asserting its control over Gaza, now that the Israelis are gone. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Gaza.

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