Israel Lowers Flag, Leaves Gaza After 38 Years

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Neve Dekalim ( - The sun rose on a different Gaza Strip Monday morning, after Israeli forces left here after a 38-year presence and Palestinians took over former Jewish settlements.

Palestinian Authority officers moved into the vacated headquarters of the Israeli army's Gaza division and raised the Palestinian flag at the same base where Israeli soldiers had lowered the Israeli flag for the last time just hours before. Thousands of Palestinians moved in to take over the vacated settlements.

Palestinians set fire to the synagogue in the southern Gaza Strip settlements of Morag, Netzarim and Neve Dekalim and claimed the rooftop of another synagogue, waving the Hamas flag and shouting Allah is great, reports said.

A convoy of Israeli military vehicles began leaving the Gaza Strip after midnight, following a ceremony at the headquarters of the Gaza division in Neve Dekalim.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt.-General Dan Halutz said that the Israel was leaving the Gaza Strip with "our heads high." The P.A., he said, must now take responsibility in the Gaza Strip for enforcing the law and preventing attacks on Israel

"This is their true test. We will not tolerate their ineptitude, turn a blind eye to their failures or ignore acts of terror. They will not be able to shirk their responsibility," Halutz said.

The head of Southern Command, Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, described this as a "new beginning" and a "historic opportunity for a better future for both peoples."

Gaza Strip Commander Brig.-General Aviv Kochavi said that this was the end of an age; and that a new gate was opening before Israel and the Palestinians, which Israel hoped would be "a gate of quiet and peace, a gate of hope and goodwill, a gate of neighborliness."

As Israeli soldiers stood at attention, the Israeli flag was lowered for the last time at the base while the sun set on the Mediterranean Sea.

Most of the headquarters compound had been dismantled by Sunday. Smoke rose from behind the base where the army was burning old furniture and cartons, an army spokesman said.

Modular units were loaded onto trucks and hauled away. But the army left the main building - stripped of its contents - behind for use by the Palestinians. A crane lifted pieces of twisted metal from a downed communications tower onto a truck for disposal.

Throughout the ceremony automatic weapons fire could be heard sporadically. "Warning shots," a soldier explained, to keep Palestinians from drawing too close, he said.

Later, media reports said that one Palestinian was wounded by Israeli army gunfire when a group of Palestinians tried to cross into the nearby settlement of Neve Dekalim.

Palestinians boycotted an earlier ceremony, at which Israel was to have turned over authority in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority. That ceremony was canceled. Reports said Palestinians were upset by Israel's failure to come up with arrangements for the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt.

Israel is turning the area known as the Philadelphi route along the Egyptian border over to Egyptian-Palestinian control.

On Sunday, by a vote of 14-2, with two abstentions, Israeli cabinet ministers reversed an earlier decision, agreeing not to destroy Gaza Strip synagogues. The cabinet also voted to end military rule in the Gaza Strip.

Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip, which had been occupied by Egypt, during the 1967 Six-Day War, just 19 years after Israel was founded. In the mid-seventies the Israeli government began to plant Jewish communities on the empty sand dunes there.

Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, is home to more than 1.2 million Palestinians. But the Jewish communities there grew into some of Israel's most prosperous agricultural exporters.

As a result of the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993 on the White House lawn, Gaza was one of the first areas to be turned over to Palestinian Authority control, except for the areas where there were Jewish communities.

But as a result of the Palestinian uprising, which began in the Gaza Strip in September 2000, Israeli forces returned to carry out counter-terrorist operations in Palestinian areas and sometimes divided the Strip into three parts to prevent the movement of weapons and Palestinians throughout the Strip.

In December 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon introduced his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four Israeli communities on the West Bank.

On August 17, 2005, Israeli forces began to evict residents of the 21 communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank from their homes. In less than a week, 9,000 residents were removed and their homes were subsequently demolished.

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