NEVEH DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (Sep. 11)
A blazing orange sun set over the Mediterranean as Israeli soldiers lowered the country’s flag at the army’s Gaza headquarters, signifying the end of an era in this sandy strip of contested land. Sunday’s brief ceremony, attended by top military officials and the parents of soldiers killed defending it, marked the end of 38 years in the Gaza Strip, a period that saw the creation — and most recently the destruction — of Jewish settlements and some of the bloodiest fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.
The three highest ranking army commanders overseeing Gaza — the army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz; the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel; and the head of the Gaza Command, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, faced an honor guard of soldiers and saluted them.
Together they sang Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” and spoke of their hopes for a better future.
“Thirty-eight years are coming to a close. The army is leaving the Gaza Strip,” Kochavi said, adding, “We leave with our heads held high. The gate that is closing after us is also a gate that is opening. We hope it will be a gate of peace and quiet, a gate of hope and goodwill.”
Harel also voiced his hope for a future without bloodshed.
“We are at the brink of something new. I hope the withdrawal of our troops signifies a period of peace and quiet with our neighbors,” he said.
But there were reminders of the difficulties that lay ahead.
Israel held a ceremony Sunday marking its official withdrawal from Gaza. But a ceremony scheduled for earlier Sunday was canceled after the Palestinian Authority boycotted the event.
The boycott came after the Israeli Cabinet reversed a decision and voted 14-2 not to raze about two dozen synagogues in Gaza.
Palestinian officials were reportedly upset that the decision put them in the position of having to destroy the synagogues.
Also, shortly before the Israeli ceremony began, an exchange of gunfire between Israeli soldiers and what appeared to be Palestinian snipers, was heard as several hundred children from the neighboring Palestinian town of Khan Yunis tried to break down the fence that led to the military command post.
Earlier Sunday, army bulldozers smoothed a pathway between sand dunes where an electronic security fence was being completed along the border between Israel and Gaza.
Elsewhere, cranes gathered scrap metal and soldiers burned refuse from the former Neveh Dekalim settlement that they did not have time to dispose of.
The smoldering trash sent plumes of black smoke curling into the sky. The cement bridge on a road exclusively built for Jewish settlers now lay smashed and broken. Piles of cement rubble bulldozed by the army lay where settler homes once stood surrounded by well-tended gardens.
Palestinians stood on the flat-topped roofs of nearby homes and watched the Israeli soldiers prepare to leave.
It is not clear what will follow once the last Israeli tank rumbles across the border back into Israel shortly after dawn Monday.
Palestinians themselves fear some level of civil war as rival groups wrestle for status and control. Israel is wary of Palestinian terrorist groups, which have refused to disarm, gaining an upper hand on the Palestinian Authority and launching attacks directly on Israel.
But reserve Brig. Gen. Tsvi Poleg, watching the military ceremony on Sunday near the former Neveh Dekalim site, said he hopes Palestinians would now focus their efforts on state building and less on Israel.
“The army can come back in,” if there are attacks, said Poleg, who served as the commander of Gaza during the first intifada. “But I hope the Palestinians will invest their energy in building their state and industry.”
Halutz said he expects the Palestinian Authority to control Gaza in an orderly way and make sure that militant groups do not attack the Jewish state.
“This is their true test. 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,” he said.
One of the first tests likely to emerge is how Palestinians will treat the empty synagogues Israel decided to leave behind instead of destroy.
Cabinet members said they did want to be party to the destruction of Jewish places of worship even though the Torah scrolls and prayer books have been removed from the structures.
The Palestinians are complaining that the Israeli government has set a trap for them, knowing it will be difficult for the P.A. to prevent Palestinian crowds from defacing the synangogues.
“Isn’t the Israeli government, in such a decision, trying to put us in a corner? Damned if we do, damned if we don’t?” a top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, take issue with Israel’s declaration that its occupation of Gaza is over, citing Israel’s continued control over which people and goods are allowed in and out of the area.
In the meantime, Israel will continue to control Gaza’s borders and airspace, citing security concerns.