NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Israeli forces pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Monday after 38 years of occupation and joyful Palestinians charged into the ruins of former settlements, waving flags and firing in the air.
Attacking symbols of the hated Israeli presence, youths smashed up and set ablaze at least two of the synagogues left behind in the 21 evacuated enclaves, the first settlements Israel has abandoned on land the Palestinians want for a state.
Some Palestinians, chanting "Allahu Akhbar" (God is greatest) brandished pictures of fighters killed in an uprising. Some kissed the ground. Others scampered down to pristine Mediterranean beaches they could not reach for years.
"Today is the happiest day in my life," said Jawad Abu Lafi, 50, after praying at the former settlement of Ganei Tal.
A line of tanks and armoured vehicles trundled into Israel through the main crossing point after the army issued its final withdrawal order to complete Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians.
"We are leaving with our heads high," said army chief of staff Dan Halutz at a flag-lowering ceremony on Sunday.
Flares fired by Israeli troops and fireworks launched by celebrating Palestinians illuminated the desert strip that has been scene of some of the bloodiest fighting since peace talks failed in 2000.
"We will begin a new life, a life that is empty of fear and occupation," said one woman as gunshots of joy mingled with joyful ululation.
While welcoming the pullout, the Palestinian Authority fears Sharon is trading Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, for permanent hold on larger areas of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 Jewish settlers live isolated from 2.4 million Arabs.
Gaza and the West Bank were captured in the 1967 war.
The withdrawal is likely to win Sharon international accolades when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Thursday. Washington hopes it will serve as a catalyst for new peacemaking.
But, Palestinians are angry that Israel will continue to control Gaza's border crossings, air space and territorial waters and say the occupation is far from over.
The poor territory is a volatile testing ground for statehood.
President Mahmoud Abbas's first task will be to enforce law and order in the Gaza Strip and rein in powerful militant groups which refuse to disarm. Israel has threatened massive retaliation if attacks from Gaza continue.
"We will not tolerate their ineptitude, turn a blind eye to their failures or ignore acts of terror. They will not be able to shirk their responsibility," said Halutz.
The Palestinian Authority's official festivities will have to compete with parades by militants claiming victory over the Jewish state.
Militants were among the first to scramble into the settlements on Monday, trying to plant the flags of their own factions on the highest ground.
"Four years of our resistance have done more than 10 years of negotiations," said one masked Hamas militant inside a settlement.
Rightist Israeli opponents of the withdrawal had called the evacuation of Gaza's 8,500 settlers a capitulation to the militants. Many settlers saw Gaza as a biblical birthright, but most Israelis were happy to abandon it.
Like most twists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pullout was marred by dispute and recriminations.
Palestinians were unhappy at a last minute decision by Israel's cabinet not to level 19 settlement synagogues, unlike settlers' homes demolished in last month's evacuation.
The Palestinian Authority accused Israel of trying to saddle it with the blame if Jewish houses of worship were defaced by Palestinian crowds. Synagogues quickly became targets for some celebrating youths despite the efforts of police.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Diala Saadeh in Gaza, Dan Williams in Kissufim, Jonathan Saul in Rafiah Yam. Writing by Matthew Tostevin in Jerusalem)
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