Disputes Overshadow Gaza Handover

Palestinian police officers wave flags from a bus window as they wait in the town of Beit Lahiya to enter the Jewish settlement of Dugit, northern Gaza Strip, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005. The Israeli Army is poised to complete its withdrawl from the coastal strip by early Monday, leaving a region it has occupied for 38 years. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
AP
Israeli troops lowered their national banner and snapped farewell photos in the final phase of the historic Gaza pullout Sunday, as thousands of Palestinian troops, onlookers and gunmen assembled nearby, eager to take control after 38 years of Israeli military occupation.

The first army convoys left Gaza after sundown Sunday. Military jeeps and armored bulldozers drove slowly through the Kissufim crossing point, marking the beginning of the end of Israel's presence in Gaza.

But the withdrawal, code-named "Last Watch," was overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian disputes, including over border arrangements and Israel's last-minute decision not to demolish Gaza synagogues. The army was forced to cancel a former handover ceremony, initially set for Sunday, after angry Palestinians said they wouldn't show up.

There was also concern about last-minute bloodshed. A 12-year-old Palestinian boy was among four Palestinians wounded by Israeli army fire when a crowd got too close to the abandoned Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements. The Israeli commander in Gaza, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, warned against last-minute hitches, urging soldiers in a final meeting not to lose their cool or open fire hastily.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the head of Israel's southern command, said Palestinians fired shots during an official ceremony closing the Gaza division headquarters in the abandoned settlement of Neve Dekalim. He warned there were indications that militants might try to attack withdrawing troops.

"We are trying to thwart them," Harel told The Associated Press. "As we speak now there are shots being fired in several different places," he said, adding that the Palestinian Authority is working with the army to keep the situation under control.

About 5,000 soldiers were still in Gaza on Sunday, and were to leave the strip by daybreak Monday.

The withdrawal marks the first time the Palestinians will have control over a defined territory. They hope to build their state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Gaza is seen as a testing ground for Palestinian aspirations of statehood, but many Palestinians fear that after the Gaza pullout, Israel will not hand over additional territory.