MORAG, Gaza Strip – Thousands of triumphant Palestinians poured into abandoned Jewish settlements early today, setting empty synagogues on fire and shooting in the air, as the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip, completing Israel’s pullout after 38 years of occupation.

Palestinian police stood by helplessly as gunmen raised flags of militant groups in the settlements and crowds smashed what was left in the ruins or walked off with doors, window frames, toilets and scrap metal. Initial plans by Palestinian police to bar the crowds from the settlements for the first few hours quickly disintegrated, illustrating the weakness of the Palestinian security forces and concerns about growing chaos after Israel’s departure.

Gaza’s night sky turned orange early Monday as fires roared across the settlements. Women ululated, teens set off fireworks and crowds chanted “God is great.”

Just after sunrise, the last column of tanks rumbled out of Gaza, passing through the Kissufim crossing into Israel. Gaza commander Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi drove through the crossing and became the last Israeli soldier to leave.

“The mission has been completed, and an era has ended,” he said after crossing into Israel. Israeli troops then raised their national flag, removed from Gaza military headquarters, on the Israeli side of coastal strip.

As Israel completed its pullout, a Palestinian policeman kneeled and kissed the sandy ground.

“Today is a day of joy and happiness that our people were deprived of in the past century,” said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, adding that the Palestinians still have a long path toward statehood. He denounced Israeli rule in Gaza as “aggression, injustice, humiliation, killing and settlement activity.”

Israel’s pullout marks the first time the Palestinians will have control over a defined territory, and Gaza is seen as a testing ground for Palestinian aspirations of statehood.

Palestinians hope to build their state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem – areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War – but fear that Israel will not hand over additional territory. They say Israel’s occupation of Gaza has not ended because it retains control over borders and the air space.

Israel removed some 8,500 Gaza settlers from their homes in 21 settlements last month, and razed homes and most buildings in the communities. However, the Israeli Cabinet decided at the last minute Sunday to leave 19 synagogue buildings intact, drawing complaints from the Palestinians and criticism from the United States.

After rushing into the settlements early Monday, Palestinians set fire to three empty synagogues, in the Morag, Kfar Darom and Netzarim settlements, as well as a Jewish seminary in Neve Dekalim. In Netzarim, two young Palestinians waving flags stomped on the smoldering debris outside the synagogue, and others took turns hitting the building with a large hammer.

Palestinian police appeared overwhelmed, watching the destruction from the sidelines. Police Col. Abdel Khader Abu Tayr said police didn’t have enough time to deploy because Israeli troops left without sufficient warning. “Now we are expending every effort to kick the people out and protect the buildings,” Abu Tayr said.

In the Neve Dekalim settlement, 22-year-old Abdel Rahman Barakat rode his bicycle through the streets, amazed at the space the settlers had enjoyed. “Oh my God, I feel so comfortable here,” he said. “It (the settlement) is very wide, it’s very big.”

In northern Gaza, university student Rami Rayan walked toward the abandoned settlement of Elei Sinai, where he said a cousin carried out a suicide bombing five years ago. “I want to feel that his blood wasn’t spilled in vain,” Rayan said, as he picked up bullet casings as souvenirs. “They (the Israelis) left because of resistance,” Rayan said.

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