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Settlers leave last Gaza outpost

Under pullout plan, evacuations in parts of West Bank to follow

Settlers remove a menorah Monday from the roof of the synagogue in Gaza's Netzarim settlement.



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NETZARIM, Gaza (CNN) -- Some sobbing, others stone-faced, but all walking peacefully, the final group of Israeli settlers in Gaza boarded buses Monday, leaving the small strip of land at the center of a geopolitical firestorm.

In their final moments at the site that has been their home for decades, the settlers sang, danced and prayed together with Israeli troops who were there to evict them.

Looking out at the final, barren settlement of Netzarim afterward, Gen. Dan Harel, the Israel Defense Forces' southern commander, said, "There are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a meeting with disengagement officials, said he instructed all government ministries to focus on resettling those who lost their homes.

"All ministries in my government must act immediately to dedicate maximum effort and management to the rebuilding," he said, according to a transcript released by his office. "I want you to see this as a national mission."

A statement from Sharon's office said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Sharon to congratulate him, calling the disengagement a "historic" and "brave" decision.

The statement also said the two plan to meet in the near future.

Abbas said he hopes the plan will "open a new page between the two people," and said Israelis and Palestinians must work together to build peace and a future for both sides "and the whole area," the statement said.

There was no immediate confirmation from Palestinian officials.

Palestinian leaders had initially criticized the pullout plan after Sharon unveiled it in December 2003, saying such a step should not be taken unilaterally.

Demolition under way

Israeli troops in Gaza are gathering belongings left behind by settlers and demolishing the 21 settlements and security infrastructure.

Under an agreement worked out with Palestinian leadership, it will be up to Palestinians to clear out the rubble.

Israel originally expected the pullout from Gaza to take weeks; instead it took five days to clear out the settlements. Forced evacuations began Wednesday, stopped during the Jewish Sabbath and ended Monday.

Harel praised Israeli soldiers and police for doing their work "wisely" and "with a lot of compassion to the settlers."

He also lauded the settlers for walking out "with straight backs" and in "an honorable way."

Shaul Goldstein, deputy head of the settler council, said the settlers had made the determination not to refuse orders to leave.

"Refusal would bring splitting the Israeli society," he said. "Everybody understood that to maintain some kind of unity inside Israeli society, we have to weep, we have to be dragged. And this is exactly what we did."

Still, he said, "We hoped the soldiers couldn't do it."

While most of Gaza's 8,500 settlers left peacefully, there was some fierce resistance. At Kfar Darom, some people threw objects and paint thinner at troops. (Full story)

Israeli military officials said many of those involved in the resistance were "infiltrators" -- people from outside Gaza who came in advance of the evacuation in hopes of stopping it.

More than 900 protesters were arrested, and more than 600 of them were released.

Goldstein said the settler council condemned any violence. He emphasized that all sides call the evacuations a peaceful operation.

"We're not a violent society, and we're not going to act violently," he said.

A key question is whether things will go as smoothly in the West Bank.

Under Sharon's disengagement plan, four settlements in the northern West Bank are to be cleared out. Residents already have poured out of two of them, the Israeli military said.

But as soldiers prepare to clear the other two -- Sa-Nur and Homesh -- there have been skirmishes with protesters.

Security concerns

While polls show a majority of Israelis support the disengagement, many are concerned that Gaza could become a base for terrorist groups that want to destroy Israel.

Former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described that fear in his resignation letter days before the pullout.

Militant groups, including Hamas, have made it clear that they will seek political power in the new Gaza.

But Palestinian officials have vowed to work to create security and rule of law.

Palestinian legal adviser Diana Buttu said Sunday that the task will be tougher due to Israel's "continued military control" of Gaza. (Full story)

Israeli troops will be out of Gaza but will maintain a presence at entry points and will have control over airspace and territorial waters.

Ehud Olmert, the new Israeli finance minister, said Sunday that Israel's decisions will be based on its security -- "on whether there will be terror or not."

The United States has promised to help both sides in the wake of the pullout.

At a speech Monday in Utah, President Bush praised Sharon for taking the "courageous and painful step" and vowed to support Palestinian officials in their efforts to build self-government. (Full story)

"Both Israelis and Palestinians have elected governments committed to peace and progress, and the way forward is clear," he said.

Despite all the questions hanging in the balance, Monday marked the end of a chapter in the tumultuous recent history of the region. For the first time since Israel took over the land after the 1967 Six-Day War, it had no civilians living in Gaza.

Harel said the historic day reflected against "the whole story of the Middle East" and the 57 years of the state of Israel.

He noted that Palestinian militants once killed three of his soldiers in the area.

"I hope that peace and stability will resume here in the area, and hopefully each one will be able to live in peace," he said.

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