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Israeli flag lowered over Gaza

Palestinian Authority may put synagogues to new uses

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NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza (CNN) -- The Israeli flag has been lowered over Gaza, symbolizing the end of 38 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory two weeks ahead of schedule.

The Israeli soldiers began leaving Gaza Sunday afternoon after the flag ceremony at the Israel-Gaza border crossing.

It is unclear when the final soldiers and military equipment will leave the area.

As the soldiers evacuate each settlement, Palestinians rush in waving flags and chanting, "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great."

In Netzarim early Monday, Palestinians set fire to buildings and fired weapons into the air, creating a tense atmosphere as police tried to control the situation.

"Crowds are venting their anger on what remains of this settlement," CNN cameraman Adil Bradlow said.

The Gaza headquarters at Neve Dekalim is the only military building that the Israelis have not dismantled and it will be handed over intact to the Palestinians.

Earlier, the Israeli Cabinet voted not to demolish 25 remaining Jewish synagogues left behind in Gaza, instead asking the Palestinian Authority to protect them.

A Palestinian official later told CNN the Palestinian Authority had decided to use some of the synagogues as community centers, and destroy others, including a synagogue in Neve Dekalim built in the shape of the Star of David.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the move puts the Palestinian leadership in the awkward position of destroying the Jewish temples themselves.

"Why would the Israeli government take this decision and throw this problem on our shoulders when they know we have an overloaded wagon of complications?" Erakat asked.

The synagogue in Netzarim was still standing, but there were no plans were in place to protect it or any of the synagogues from any Palestinian citizens who might want to damage them, the official said.

Several Palestinians stood atop the Netzarim synagogue with flags, firing weapons into the air. A bonfire was alight under the building.

The Israeli ministers voted Sunday to complete the pullout Sunday. The Israeli military's departure had been expected in two weeks but was rushed in recent days.

Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the Cabinet voted 14-2 with one abstention against demolishing the synagogues. Destroying the 25 synagogues would have delayed the withdrawal.

The vote was made after the Cabinet unanimously voted to formally end military administration in Gaza after 38 years.

It also unanimously moved to withdraw its military forces from the Philadelphi corridor between Gaza and Egypt.

There was going to be a joint Israeli and Palestinian handover ceremony at the Erez Crossing on Sunday but that was scrapped.

Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfik Abu Houssa said officials were not attending the ceremony. Israel confirmed the Palestinians told them they were not attending.

The Israeli commander for Gaza was to hand over maps and other documents to his Palestinian counterpart.

Diana Buttu, a legal adviser for the Palestinians, said the Palestinian decision not to attend was prompted by what it says is opposition to unilateral actions by Israel at border crossings.

The military withdrawal follows Israel's historic removal last month of 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza and several hundred more from a corner of the West Bank.

Sharon has invested much of his political future in the pullout plan, which is aimed at invigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Palestinian leaders had initially criticized the pullout plan after Sharon announced it in December 2003, saying such a step should not be taken without first negotiating with the Palestinians.

But after the largely peaceful withdrawal of the settlers, Sharon's office said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had called the Israeli prime minister to congratulate him, calling the disengagement a "historic" and "brave" decision.

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

Abbas said he hoped the plan would "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," a statement from Sharon's office said.

CNN correspondent Guy Raz contributed to this report.

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