GAZA (Reuters) - Egypt began deploying guards along its border with the Gaza Strip on Saturday to replace Israeli troops set to withdraw from occupied territory that will become a testing ground for Palestinian statehood.
The final stage of Israel's Gaza pullout, ending a 38-year-old military presence, appeared likely to begin on Sunday, after the Israeli cabinet votes on the fate of 25 synagogues still standing in 21 demolished Jewish settlements.
"Limited forces from the border guards began to take their positions on the border with Gaza," said an Egyptian security source in north Sinai. He gave no numbers and said the deployment would go ahead in stages.
Egyptian and Israeli generals signed an agreement on Sept. 1 to allow the deployment of 750 Egyptian border guards along the 12-km stretch, which is known by the names Salaheddin Corridor or Philadelphi Road.
Israel hopes the Egyptian force will be able to curb weapons smuggling by Palestinian militants who have dug tunnels under the frontier.
In a sign of growing lawlessness in the Gaza Strip, masked Palestinian gunmen in the town of Deir al-Balah seized Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi, a correspondent for the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
He was released unharmed several hours later. The abduction, by gunmen from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, followed the occupation earlier in the day of two government buildings in Deir al-Balah by 200 members of the militant group demanding jobs.
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.
U.S. mediators hope the withdrawal under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to disengage from conflict with the Palestinians 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.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said there would be no swift return to negotiations on Palestinian statehood envisaged by a Middle East peace "road map" that has been stalled by nearly five years of violence.
"The Palestinians must demonstrate they are capable of controlling Gaza. If they do not demonstrate that, it will be very difficult to resume the negotiations," Peres, an architect of interim peace deals with the Palestinians, told Israel Radio.
Israeli military sources said the troop withdrawal, slated to begin on Sunday and following on the heels of 8,500 Jewish settlers evacuated last month, would take about 12 hours.
Sharon's cabinet will first vote on whether to go ahead with a plan to demolish synagogues in the former enclaves or bend to rabbis' requests to leave them intact despite fears the houses of worship might be desecrated by Palestinians.
Israel's Channel 10 television said that even if the cabinet decided to destroy the structures, levelling them with explosives would take only four hours, clearing the way for the army to complete the withdrawal early on Monday.
Calling on Israel to raze the synagogues, Jibril Rajoub, a senior security aide to Abbas, said the Palestinian Authority could not guarantee their protection, "because the Palestinians see them as symbols of occupation".
Gazans are expected to 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.
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 Edmund Blair in Cairo, Robin Pomeroy in Rome, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah)
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