JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli army blew up its last military posts in the Gaza Strip on Friday in final preparations for completing a pullout early next week after 38 years of occupation.
Residents on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border were shaken out of bed by loud blasts as troops dynamited several security offices in the north of the territory, a precursor to turning over the razed settlements to the Palestinians.
Military sources said the withdrawal, following on the heels of 8,500 Jewish settlers evacuated last month, should begin on Sunday and will be over in 24 hours.
But Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said the pullout, marking Israel's first uprooting of settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state, could be delayed a day because of uncertainty over the fate of the 25 synagogues in the former enclaves.
It is emotionally charged issue for Israelis worried that the Jewish houses of worship might be desecrated by Palestinians if left intact. "It is very difficult for me to give the order to destroy synagogues," Mofaz told Israel Radio.
U.S. mediators hope the withdrawal under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan will serve as a catalyst for renewed peacemaking.
But Palestinians are watching with a mixture of joy and scepticism. They fear Israel is trading tiny Gaza for a permanent hold on much larger swathes of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 settlers live.
Mofaz told Palestinian television in a rare interview that Israel would declare the end of its military rule in Gaza after the pullout.
But Palestinians in Gaza say Israel's withdrawal cannot mark the end of 38 years of its occupation in the area unless they are free to travel to and from the West Bank and operate air and sea ports, issues that officials are still discussing.
FEARS OF INTERNAL STRIFE
In Gaza City, scores of loyalists fired in the air and vowed revenge as ex-security chief Moussa Arafat, cousin of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was buried two days after gunmen dragged him from his house and killed him in the street.
The assassination of Arafat, whom his killers accused of corruption and collaboration with Israel, underlined the turmoil in the Gaza Strip and increased fears of internal strife after Israel completes its pullout.
Gazans are expected take to the streets in celebration after the Israelis leave. The Palestinian Authority's official celebrations will have to compete with parades by militants claiming victory over the Jewish state.
Mofaz told Palestinian television that the Palestinian government was not doing enough to exercise its control over its factions and to stop militants.
The army pressed ahead with pullout preparations, destroying a bridge leading to the now-abandoned settlements, blowing up bunkers and packing equipment. It also removed some watchtowers, one of the most hated symbols of occupation to the Palestinians.
Rejecting an appeal by leading rabbis, Israel's High Court on Thursday cleared away the last legal obstacle to the pullout when it backed the government's plan to demolish synagogues in the Gaza settlements.
But Mofaz put the demolitions on hold, saying the cabinet would have the last word on Sunday. The rabbis had argued that ritual law forbade Jews from destroying synagogues.
Some were the scene of clashes last month pitting troops against hardline settlers who said the evacuation betrayed a biblical birthright and rewarded Palestinian violence. Settlers had lived isolated from Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians.
Mofaz said he preferred Palestinian officials to take responsibility for the synagogues, but they have refused.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)
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