Palestinians move in as Israel ends 38-year occupation of Gaza

After 38 years, Israeli troops began to leave the area last night following last month's evacuation of the settlements. Their positions were immediately taken up by Palestinian forces. The army is expected to complete a rapid evacuation of the troops by dawn today.

However, the atmosphere soured when the Palestinian Authority boycotted a formal handover ceremony with the Israeli army, in protest at a series of decisions which it says will allow Israel to maintain a clear element of control after the withdrawal. These included the Israeli cabinet reversing an earlier decision to destroy empty synagogues on the land. Palestinian security forces are bracing themselves for protests by residents and possible looting of the empty public buildings ­ now including the synagogues ­ as Gazans celebrate the restoration of the 20 per cent of their territory occupied by 8,500 Jewish settlers until last month.

In a potent example of the withdrawal, yesterday the army left the home of Khalil Bashir in Deir al-Balah which it had occupied for five years. They confined his family to one room during the run-up to disengagement. Mr Bashir, a school principal, who refused to leave when the army moved in at the beginning of the intifada to protect the adjacent Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, said: "I am very happy. But as you can see we are still living under shooting. Come back tomorrow." A signpost to the room the family has inhabited, put up by Mr Bashir's children, reads in English: "To the gaol".

Prominent among the reasons cited by Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian civil affairs minister, for boycotting the ceremony was the decision by Israel to close the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt for six months. And the PA is angry at its early assessments that Israel has not fulfilled its promise to remove asbestos from destroyed homes. It also fears that the 14-2 cabinet decision in favour of leaving the synagogues standing is intended to embarrass the leadership should militants damage or plant flags of the factions on the buildings.

Mr Dahlan said: "The Israelis want to leave the ball in the Palestinians' court. They want to show that we are uncivilised people. This is unrealistic."

* Palestinian witnesses said three adults and a boy, 12, were shot and wounded by the Israeli army in separate incidents as they prepared to enter Gush Katif.

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