Palestinians mark end of occupation
Some took sledgehammers to a synagogue, which Israeli leaders denounced.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- In gestures big and small, Palestinians began a new era in the Gaza Strip on Monday, marking the end of 38 years of Israeli military rule with flag raisings and destruction.
Just after sunrise, Maj. Mohammed Baraka stood at attention while his soldiers raised the Palestinian flag over the ruins of Neve Dekalim. Nearby, masked militants with machine guns planted the flag of Islamic Jihad on the roof of what had been the settlement's synagogue.
Earlier, emotional Palestinians converged at the former Israeli settlement of Netzarim, outside Gaza City, and took turns swinging a sledgehammer into the columns of the town's synagogue before setting its roof ablaze.
"This is history," said a 21-year-old Palestinian who identified himself only as Abu Khalid as he took a few swings with the sledgehammer. "I have returned to my land."
Israeli leaders denounced the attacks as barbaric, but Palestinian officials said Israel should have demolished the buildings as planned if it had wanted the former synagogues to receive special treatment.
Cabinet vetoed demolition
Israel originally had pledged to bulldoze most of the buildings in the settlements, including the synagogues, but on Sunday, even as Israeli troops were streaming out of Gaza, the Israeli Cabinet voted not to dismantle the 26 former synagogues and asked the Palestinian Authority to protect them, a request the Palestinians rejected.
Throughout the day, Palestinians flooded into the 21 former Israeli settlements that had served as volatile flash points for deadly clashes between the 8,500 Jewish residents living under military protection in Gaza and the surrounding 1.3 million Palestinians.
Families with children who had been blocked by the Israeli settlements from getting to nearby Mediterranean beaches dived into the warm waters for the first time in years. Convoys of masked Islamic militants carrying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and machine guns cruised through the settlements praising God.