Israeli troops leave Gaza

Israeli troops began their final pullout from the Gaza Strip on Monday to hand the territory to the Palestinians after 38 years of occupation.

Waving flags and giving victory signs, Palestinian security forces moved into the ruins of the 21 former Jewish enclaves, the first settlements that Israel has abandoned on territory that Palestinians want for a state.

Chanting "Allahu Akhbar" (God is greatest), honking car horns, setting off fireworks and waving pictures of fighters killed in an uprising, Palestinians rushed towards the settlements. Some kissed ground they could not touch for years.

Jeeps and armoured vehicles rolled into Israel after the army issued a final order for the withdrawal, to complete Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians. Palestinians plan the biggest celebrations since the start of an uprising that has brought bloodshed and ruin since peace talks failed in 2000.

While welcoming the pullout, the Palestinian Authority fears Sharon is trading Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, for permanent hold on larger areas of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 Jewish settlers live isolated from 2.4 million Arabs. Palestinians are also angry that Israel aims to keep control of Gaza's border crossings, air and waters, Reuters reports.

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