Celebration, chaos reign in former Gaza settlements

Thousands descend to scavenge material, make political points

September 13, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - Throughout the abandoned settlements of Gaza, yesterday was a carnival of celebration, political grandstanding and widespread scavenging by a Palestinian population whose occupiers vanished overnight, as the Israeli army pulled its last soldier out of Gaza at 6:50 a.m.

Hours before a divisional commander became the last Israeli soldier to leave, thousands of Palestinians had entered the once-forbidden settlements that, together with their military infrastructure, consumed about 30 percent of the densely populated Gaza Strip.

"I was ordered to keep guard over this building," a Palestinian Authority policeman said yesterday morning, as young men behind him busily stripped the window frames and metal ceiling slats from the main synagogue in this former Israeli settlement. "But the people got here first."

Some came to see the land they had worked before the 1967 war, when Israel captured Gaza from Egypt; some came to honor their friends who had died in attacks on the Israeli settlers; some came to plant their political flags on the military and religious symbols of the 38-year occupation; and many came to salvage whatever could be ripped away and sold from the large piles of rubble the Israelis had left behind.

Donkey carts were piled high with bathroom fixtures, pieces of metal, skeins of wiring and long pieces of wood, to feed home ovens. Men, women and children worked with a seriousness of purpose, to try to take home some little personal benefit from the return of lands many feel will somehow, as usual, end up in the hands of the wealthy or well-connected.

By the light of burning egg crates, Samir Abu Hattah whacked away at window glass with a metal pole, shouting: "Go to hell, Zionists!" He then directed a group of young men to start pulling down the electrical wiring, aluminum window frames and doors of an agricultural warehouse here in Neve Dekalim.

"I feel a great sense of victory today," said Hattah, 40, who lives across the tall concrete wall in the Khan Yunis refugee camp and who used to work in this settlement before the second Palestinian uprising began in 2000.

"The Zionists built it and then they destroyed it," he said with satisfaction. "The lesson I've learned, and I will pass it on to my sons, is that no matter how long it takes, the occupiers will leave because of resistance."

Behind him, a settlement synagogue built in the shape of a huge Star of David was smoldering, and fires lit inside were sending smoke through the edges of the star. Atop the building, in the dim smoky moment before dawn, a huge green flag of the radical Islamic group Hamas could be seen, with a smaller flag of Palestine flying below it.

A few minutes later, a large, black flag of the radical group Islamic Jihad was flying just under the Hamas flag, above the one of Palestine.

Five minutes later, the flag of Palestine had been taken down altogether.

As daylight brightened, more Palestinians poured into the former settlements, savoring what had been forbidden territory surrounded by massive fortifications and electronic fences. They were joined by hundreds of schoolchildren in uniform who were given the day off as a holiday.

Ahmad el-Kurd, the new Hamas mayor of Deir el-Balah, cheek-by-cheek with the former settlement of Kfar Darom, said his joy was mixed, as he remembered how much he loved, as a boy, the unspoiled dunes that were fenced off for Kfar Darom. "If they could only give me back the land as it was 38 years ago," he said. "Now it's only piles of rubble."

In Kfar Darom yesterday, there was an extensive march of armed fighters, but the synagogue there was protected from burning by security forces, who made a kind of headquarters out of it. Palestinian officials said they expected to pull down the remaining synagogues themselves, and a bulldozer began the task in the settlement of Netzarim.

He was happy today, Kurd said, but his happiness was tempered "because of the continuing occupation of Jenin and Nablus and Jerusalem, which are also part of Palestine," he said. And until Israel resolved the question of how to allow Palestinians and their goods to enter and exit freely from Gaza, to Egypt and to the West Bank, he said, "Israel remains an occupier." That position is supported by the Palestinian Authority.

"If there is no freedom of movement, don't consider the Palestinians free," Kurd said. "We will not accept Gaza as a big prison."

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that the life of Gaza is up to the Palestinians now, and that only security considerations are preventing a resolution of the issues of entry and access, especially from Egypt.

The Israelis have proposed a complicated six-month provisional procedure, which the Palestinians reject, and the Israelis have rejected a proposal by the negotiator James Wolfensohn to allow people to pass through Rafah, with European officials supervising the process on behalf of Israel.

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