JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Their bases dismantled and the Jewish settlements they guarded in ruins, Israeli troops were poised to withdraw from the Gaza Strip on Sunday and leave Palestinians a volatile testing ground for statehood.
The army planned a handover ceremony at the Israel-Gaza border and a symbolic lowering of the Israeli flag at Neve Dekalim, the largest of the 21 settlements evacuated and demolished in the occupied territory last month.
As part of the final act of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" from a tiny coastal strip packed with 1.4 million Palestinians and bitter memories for Arabs and Jews alike, his cabinet was to address one of the most emotional issues surrounding the exodus.
A majority of ministers, including Sharon, were expected to vote to leave intact the settlements' 25 synagogues, the last buildings left standing, a senior political source said.
The decision, a reversal of the government's earlier intention to raze the houses of worship, followed pressure from leading rabbis who said destroying them would be a greater sin than possible desecration by Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority refuses to take responsibility for the buildings.
Palestinians were watching the end of Israel's 38-year-old military presence with a mixture of joy and scepticism. They fear it is trading the territory for a permanent hold on larger areas of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 settlers live.
Gazans are expected to take to the streets in celebration after Israel completes the handover, its first removal of settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state.
The Palestinian Authority's official festivities will have to compete with parades by militants claiming victory over the Jewish state.
"All security forces have been put on high alert and are fully prepared to implement the decision of their command to deploy in every place to be vacated by Israel," Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said.
However, militants flexed their muscles again on Saturday, underscoring the challenges Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces from powerful armed groups to his call for law and order and peaceful dialogue with Israel.
About 200 gunmen from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group within Abbas's Fatah faction, occupied two government buildings in the town of Deir al-Balah to demand jobs.
Four masked men, identified by the brigades as members who took unsanctioned action, abducted at gunpoint Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi of the Corriere della Sera newspaper. He was released unharmed several hours later.
On the southern Gaza frontier, Egypt began deploying under a deal with Israel the first contingents of the 750 border guards who will replace Israeli troops at the Philadelphi corridor, where militants have built weapons-smuggling tunnels.
On Friday, the Israeli army blew up its last military posts in the Gaza Strip. Troops were waiting in and near their armoured vehicles for the green light to roll into Israel, a pullout security sources said could be completed in 12 hours.
U.S. mediators hope the withdrawal will serve as a catalyst for renewed peacemaking after nearly five years of violence.
However, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said there would be no swift return to negotiations on Palestinian statehood until Palestinian leaders demonstrated they were capable of "controlling Gaza".
Cross-border rocket attacks by militants could hurt Sharon's chances of warding off a challenge by his strongest political rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the leadership of their right-wing Likud party and, ultimately, the premiership.
Israel has threatened unprecedented retaliation if the rockets fly.
Palestinian officials say Israel's withdrawal cannot mark the end of occupation in Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, unless they are free to travel to and from the West Bank and operate air and sea ports, issues still under discussion.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Edmund Blair in Cairo and Robin Pomeroy in Rome)
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