As Israel leaves Gaza - Palestinians rush in

Palestinians set flags on the rubble of Jewish settlements and set synagogues on fire as Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.

"This is a day of happiness and joy that the Palestinian people have not witnessed for a century," President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Gaza City.

Thousands of Palestinian security men waving victory signs took over while Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles trundled out under cover of darkness, for the first time giving up settlements on land that Palestinians want for a state.

Shortly after sunrise, Israeli soldiers closed the gates of the main crossing to the abandoned settlements.

"The mission has been completed," said Brigadier Aviv Kochavi. "Israel's presence of 38 years has come to an end."

Attacking symbols of the hated Israeli occupation, youths set ablaze several of the synagogues left behind in the 21 settlements evacuated last month under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" from conflict.

Celebrating Palestinians chanted "Allahu Akhbar" (God is greatest) and held up pictures of militants killed in an uprising. Some kissed the ground. Others scampered down to pristine beaches they could not reach for years, Reuters reports.

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