Chaos in Gaza as Israel quits

Palestinians took control of the Gaza Strip for the first time in their history but deadly scenes of chaos and jubilation ensued after Israel withdraws.

Thousands of Palestinian security personnel swarmed into abandoned Jewish settlements Monday, raising their flag over land captured by Israel in a war with Egypt 38 years ago, as Israeli tanks rolled out, ending a deployment steeped in bloodshed.

"It is time for our people to rejoice and to put an end to the tragedies, sadness and suffering," Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas said as he toured the ruins of the former settlement of Dugit in the north of the territory.

The day was tinged with tragedy, however, as five Palestinians drowned in once-forbidden seas off Gaza while another was killed on the border with Egypt.

The operation marked Israel's first full withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory, hailed by the international community as a new chance for peace but a political gamble for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Thousands of Gazans flocked towards the evacuated areas from daybreak. Smoke spewed into the air from burning rubbish in former settlements as enormous national flags fluttered from telegraph poles while mobs of youths poured in, ransacking, looting and torching synagogues and other buildings.

The green banner of Islamic militant group Hamas, which has declared the pullout a victory for its five-year campaign of violence, was hoisted above a ransacked synagogue in Neve Dekalim, once the largest Gaza settlements.

Around 20 masked gunmen from its rival Islamic Jihad paraded through the enclave, firing into the air as hundreds of men, women and children scavenged through the rubble of the buildings, searching for Israeli booty.

On the Gaza-Egypt border, anarchy reigned as dozens of Palestinians swarmed into part of the buffer zone vacated by Israeli troops just hours before.

Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that Israel's departure from Gaza ushered in a policy of "zero tolerance" towards continued violence as Hamas vowed to press its campaign of resistance until all Palestinian land was freed.

"From now on, it's zero tolerance to terrorism and the army is prepared to act in every possible way," Mofaz said, without elaborating.

"From now on, the responsibility for what happens in the Gaza Strip lies in the hands of the Palestinian Authority," the AFP quoted Israel's Gaza divisional commander General Avi Kochavi as saying.

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