Israeli troops demolished the remaining military installations in the Gaza Strip yesterday, in final preparations for the pullout from the territory after 38 years of occupation.
The pullout was to be completed by Tuesday, and soldiers -- now left without bases and guard posts -- were to remain in armored vehicles until then. The head of Israel's forces in Gaza, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, will be the last soldier to leave the coastal strip and will lock the gate of the Kissufim border crossing in a small ceremony.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that all Israeli soldiers should be out of Gaza by Monday, but that the pullout could be delayed by a day because of uncertainty over the fate of more than two dozen synagogues in Gaza's demolished Jewish settlements.
The Israeli Cabinet is to decide tomorrow whether Israel will demolish the synagogues, or leave them intact, with the expectation the Palestinians will preserve them. Mofaz told Israel Army Radio yesterday that "it is very hard for me to give the army orders to destroy and blow up Jewish synagogues."
The Palestinians insist that Israel remove the synagogues. If Israel does raze the buildings, the pullout will be delayed by a day.
In Gaza City, former security chief Moussa Arafat, assassinated earlier this week by dozens of gunmen, was to be buried in a military funeral yesterday, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attending. Arafat's eldest son, Manhal, was released early yesterday after being kidnapped by the killers of his father, a militant group known as the Popular Resistance Committees.
The killing was a major challenge to the Palestinian Authority just days before the Gaza handover. It underscored the weakness of Abbas and the unchecked power of armed gangs. In the case of Arafat, the Palestinian security forces negotiated with the killers for the release of the hostage, instead of arresting them.
The power struggle could spill over into planned victory marches. The Palestinian Authority insisted it would lead the celebrations, while the rival Hamas militant group planned its own military-style parades to underscore its claim that it drove Israel out with its bombing and shooting attacks.
As part of yesterday's last-minute preparations for the pullout, Israel demolished a bridge leading to the now abandoned Jewish settlements and a liaison office at the main Israel-Gaza crossing point. By the end of the day, the army planned to have all its equipment out of the Gaza Strip.
Also yesterday, the outgoing US ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, said that Washington expects Israel to dismantle unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts, in line with its obligations under the US-backed road map peace plan. "We still expect as a country that Israel is going to fill its commitment," Kurtzer told Israel Radio.
Kurtzer, who is wrapping up a four-year term, noted that Israel has promised in writing to take down the outposts set up by settlers, in large part with government funding. "We have no reason to believe that Israel will try to evade its responsibility," Kurtzer said.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official, meanwhile, said Israel has set aside plans to ask Washington for US$2 billion in aid for its Gaza withdrawal while the US is busy dealing with the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.
A high-level Israeli delegation that was to discuss the aid with US officials has postponed a trip to Washington, said the spokesman, Mark Regev. "The issue [of US aid] is not on the table at the moment," Regev said. "Everyone's dealing with Katrina."
Kurtzer hinted it would be wise for Israel to hold off on pursuing its aid request.
"The [Israeli] government may or may not decide to pursue it right now in view of the fact that the costs to the American taxpayer of Katrina are likely to be enormous in the period ahead," Kurtzer said.
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