Gazans Burn Synagogues in Israeli Soldiers’ Wake

Times Staff Writers

Palestinians surged triumphantly into demolished Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip early today, torching empty synagogues and firing shots into the air, as the last Israeli soldiers withdrew after 38 years of occupation.

The troops’ departure marked the final step in the government’s decision to leave Gaza, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War, and opened an era laden with uncertainty for the coastal enclave’s 1.3 million Palestinian residents.

Having evacuated about 8,500 Jewish settlers last month and overseen the razing of their homes, the 3,000 Israeli soldiers moved out before sunrise in convoys of tanks and armored personnel carriers. As they left, calls went out from mosques declaring Gaza’s “liberation.”


“This is a day of happiness and joy that the Palestinian people have not witnessed for a century,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said.

At the former Netzarim settlement in northern Gaza, one of several places where crowds pushed past cordons of Palestinian police after the Israeli troops had left, thick clouds of smoke darkened the sky at dawn.

Men made their way around the demolished community on bicycle, donkey and foot, scavenging door frames and toilets. Some in the crowd tied the flags of the largest militant groups -- green for Hamas, black for Islamic Jihad -- around their necks as capes.

“It’s ours now, and I had to come out to see it with my own eyes,” said Raed Dashan, 29, of Gaza City.

Celebrating Palestinians set fire to the synagogue in Netzarim, and there were reports of similar torchings in Morag and other locations.

Palestinian security forces appeared to have decided not to use force and instead let the celebrations play out, although it was unclear whether they could have held back the crowds if they had wanted to.


The Israeli Cabinet held its final vote on the pullout Sunday. Within hours, Israeli military commanders in the Gaza Strip had lowered their nation’s flag, and the first convoys of armored vehicles began carrying equipment out of the territory.

In a last-minute reversal, the Cabinet voted to leave intact more than two dozen synagogues in the former settlements, despite warnings from Palestinian Authority officials that they could not ensure their protection. Palestinian officials announced late Sunday that they would demolish the buildings.

Palestinian leaders’ displeasure with the Israeli Cabinet’s decision on the synagogues prompted them to boycott a hand-over ceremony with Israeli commanders at the Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip.

Last month, Israel evacuated all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four tiny communities in the northern West Bank, an area its forces also seized during the 1967 conflict. The moves marked the first time Israel had abandoned established settlements in areas the Palestinians hope to make their own state.

Preparations for the troop pullout unfolded Sunday in an atmosphere of historic significance, with Israeli commentators assessing the long Israeli presence, and ordinary Gazans, especially those living in towns and villages nearest the former settlements, expressing plain joy.

“We’re so, so, so happy,” said Yehiyeh Bashir, a 55-year-old father of nine whose house in the village of Deir al Balah overlooked the settlement of Kfar Darom. He and neighbors pulled up white plastic chairs and sipped tea, watching the slow, rumbling movement of Israeli tanks in Kfar Darom, now a wasteland of rubble.

A carnival air hung over much of Gaza. Teens keeping lookout shouted excitedly to one another whenever a tank began moving. Women ululated in celebration, and car horns honked. Trucks mounted with speakers moved through the streets, playing Palestinian nationalist songs and waving Hamas or Islamic Jihad flags.

Controversy over the synagogues within Israel’s government crackled until the last minute, when the majority of Cabinet ministers reversed course by voting against demolition after intensive lobbying by rabbis who opposed the razing of the houses of worship. Private homes in the evacuated settlements had already been demolished.

The 14-2 Cabinet vote overturned a 15-month-old government decision to destroy synagogues as part of the evacuation.

The Cabinet decision to leave the synagogues in place crossed party lines, but commentators said the shift appeared to have been influenced heavily by maneuvering in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s conservative Likud Party.

The party’s hard-line central committee will meet in two weeks to decide whether to hold an early primary and, Israeli analysts said, ministers were mindful of how the synagogue issue would play out among its members, many of whom are religiously observant.

The tide began to turn late last week, when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who previously had spoken in favor of demolition, announced that he now opposed destroying the synagogues. On Sunday, Sharon said he too had changed his mind.

The decision left the fate of the synagogues in Abbas’ hands. Palestinian officials had turned down an earlier Israeli request that they act as caretakers because of concerns that they could not prevent militants from defacing the synagogues as symbols of the Israeli presence.

“It is a very unfair decision to put us in a situation where if we demolish them we will be doomed, and if we don’t, we’ll be doomed,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “This is the last thing we want.”

Other critics said desecration of the buildings by Palestinians might spur Jewish extremists to attack Muslim houses of worship in retaliation, setting off a new cycle of conflict.

The Cabinet’s vote was its last on the Gaza evacuation, which has dominated political debate in Israel for a year and a half. Sharon proposed leaving Gaza, the scene of frequent clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, as a way to reduce friction and allow Israel to focus on retaining its much larger settlements in the West Bank.

On Sunday evening, Israeli soldiers lowered their nation’s flag in a ceremony at the army’s Gaza division headquarters near the former settlement of Neve Dekalim.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter,” the division’s commander, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said during the solemn, 20-minute event. “The strip is being transferred to our neighbors. It’s the beginning of a new reality, which only the future will tell what it holds for us.”

It remains to be seen whether the Israeli troops, once departed, will stay gone for long.

Israel has promised to respond harshly to volleys of rockets or mortar shells fired by militants from Gaza into southern Israeli communities. Israel also could strike if it sees the Palestinian Authority as doing too little to rein in fighters or arms smuggling.

Abbas has orchestrated seven months of relative quiet by coaxing militant groups, particularly Hamas, into halting their attacks. But Israel wants him to confront the militias more forcefully, saying Palestinian leaders’ success in subduing armed groups will help determine whether future peace moves are possible.

“For the first time, not only in 38 years, but ever, Gaza is given the opportunity to act like a state, with its own regime,” Giora Eiland, Israel’s national security chief, told Israel Radio on Sunday.

But Palestinians say it is premature to declare an end to Israel’s military occupation until it gives up control of border crossings and allows them to reopen the airport and construct a seaport.

“By reserving itself the ability to invade the Gaza Strip and by maintaining control over Palestinian airspace, territorial waters and most importantly its borders, Israel will continue its military rule over Palestinians,” Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan said in a statement.

King reported from Gaza City and Ellingwood from Jerusalem.