GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli army forces left the Gaza Strip early today after a 38-year occupation, the first withdrawal from an entire territory Palestinians are seeking for a future state.
Tanks and armored vehicles moved out of positions and checkpoints, and headed back to Israel as groups of jubilant Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate. On the southern outskirts of Gaza City, cars speeded through the streets, horns honking, and young men waved Palestinian flags. Thousands of Palestinians streamed into the long-fortified Israeli enclaves for the first time early today.
"Occupier, get out of this country," blasted a sound truck of the militant Islamic Jihad group as a flag-waving convoy passed near the demolished settlement of Netzarim in the final hours before the Israelis left.
Before sunset yesterday, the Israeli flag was lowered and the national anthem was sung at Israeli army headquarters outside the destroyed settlement of Neve Dekalim, signaling the end of the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip.
"We are leaving with our heads held high," said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff. "The decision to leave Gaza was made out of strength, and with it comes a hope for a better future."
Israel evacuated all its settlements in the Gaza Strip last month and then demolished them, setting the stage for today's military withdrawal.
Nearly 9,000 Israelis lived in 21 heavily guarded settlements in the Gaza Strip among 1.4 million Palestinians, protected by a network of army posts, watchtowers and checkpoints. Israel captured the impoverished coastal territory along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.
As the army prepared to withdraw, the Palestinian Authority sent police reinforcements into neighborhoods near the abandoned settlements to prevent crowds from surging into the areas left by the Israelis.
As a crowd pressed to get into the destroyed settlement of Neve Dekalim yesterday evening, Israeli troops shot and wounded four Palestinians, witnesses said. The army said one youth was wounded when he crossed the settlement's perimeter fence.
Palestinian officials said that after an initial entry and security checks by Palestinian forces, civilians would be allowed into the settlement areas, which have been off-limits to ordinary Palestinians for about three decades and lethal no-go zones during the past five years of violent conflict.
The pullout was marred by disagreements over Israel's closing of a border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and an Israeli Cabinet decision to leave synagogue buildings in the demolished settlements standing.
A joint hand-over ceremony between Israeli and Palestinian officers was canceled after Palestinian officials boycotted the meeting in protest.
The Israeli Cabinet voted 14-2 with one abstention not to demolish the settlement synagogues, reversing an earlier plan to blow up the structures, which have been stripped of furniture and religious objects.
Prominent rabbis in Israel and abroad appealed to the government not to wreck the buildings, arguing that it was better for them to be destroyed by Palestinians than demolished by Jews. Palestinian officials said they could not be held responsible for protecting the structures, which they said should have been removed by Israel.
The fate of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt also remained unresolved.
Israel shut the crossing last week ahead of its withdrawal from the border zone, closing the only direct land link between Gaza and the Arab world.
Pointing to security concerns, Israeli officials said they would open an alternate crossing on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip and Egypt this month, where they could continue to monitor travelers coming to Gaza until new security arrangements are made for Rafah.
However, Palestinian officials have flatly rejected the arrangement, saying it left the Gaza Strip under Israeli control.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.