The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has laid claim to the Gaza Strip after Israel completed withdrawing its troops, ending 38 years of occupation. Abbas said it was a day of happiness and joy that his people had not seen for a century. The day was marked with ceremony and celebration – but also controversy. Palestinians set fire to several synagogues, attacking what they see as symbols of the occupation. The structures were left behind in 21 settlements evacuated last month, as part of what the Israeli Prime Minister has presented as a plan to disengage from conflict.
The synagogues had been emptied by the Israelis, but many Palestinians were angry that Ariel Sharon’s cabinet decided to leave the buildings intact. Rabbis had apparently insisted that traditional law ruled out demolition. Israel said setting the synagogues on fire was not a way of creating an environment for a hopeful future. Palestinian officials maintain everything will be demolished, despite Israel saying it expects to see the structures preserved. While Palestinians welcomed the Israeli withdrawal, many fear that Prime Minister Sharon is trading Gaza for a permanent hold on larger areas of the occupied West Bank. Rightist Israeli opponents of the pullout slam it as capitulation to the militants. Observers say most Israelis, however, are glad to see the back of Gaza. Meanwhile, Cairo has denied Palestinian eyewitness reports that Egyptian guards killed a Palestinian on the Egypt-Gaza border today. Some Palestinians had crossed the frontier to join the celebrations.