Triumphant Palestinians enter Netzarim

Thousands of Palestinians poured into the abandoned Jewish settlement of Netzarim early on Monday, setting an empty synagogue on fire and shooting in the air, as convoys of Israeli troops rolled out of the Gaza Strip in the final phase of Israel's pullout from the territory after 38 years of occupation.

Palestinian police stood by as gunmen raised flags of militant groups and crowds smashed what was left in the ruins or set fire to the debris.

There were similar scenes throughout Gaza.

The synagogue buildings were a focus of Palestinian anger after 38 years of Israeli occupation, primarily because they were among the only buildings left standing.

Israel had demolished nearly all buildings in its 21 former Gaza settlements, but the Israeli cabinet decided at the last minute to leave 19 synagogues intact, a decision criticised by the Palestinians and the United States, reports

According to Reuters, some Palestinians, chanting "Allahu Akhbar" (God is greatest) brandished pictures of fighters killed in an uprising. Some kissed the ground. Others scampered down to pristine Mediterranean beaches they could not reach for years.

"Today is the happiest day in my life," said Jawad Abu Lafi, 50, after praying at the former settlement of Ganei Tal.

A line of tanks and armoured vehicles trundled into Israel through the main crossing point after the army issued its final withdrawal order to complete Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians.

"We are leaving with our heads high," said army chief of staff Dan Halutz at a flag-lowering ceremony on Sunday.

Flares fired by Israeli troops and fireworks launched by celebrating Palestinians illuminated the desert strip that has been scene of some of the bloodiest fighting since peace talks failed in 2000.

"We will begin a new life, a life that is empty of fear and occupation," said one woman as gunshots of joy mingled with joyful ululation.

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