Jubilant Palestinians fired in the air and honked car horns yesterday, after Israeli troops pulled out of the last of four abandoned Jewish West Bank settlements, completing the final phase of the withdrawal it began in Gaza last month.
The final Israeli exit came after sundown Tuesday, when a few army vehicles left the empty settlements of Ganim and Kadim, next to the West Bank town of Jenin. Within minutes, thousands of celebrating Palestinians stormed in, setting rubble ablaze as gunmen fired in the air -- reprising the scenes in Gaza when Israel completed its pullout there last week.
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank marked the first time Israel has ever removed veteran settlements from territories claimed by the Palestinians for a state. Palestinians insist this must be followed by an Israeli exit from the rest of the West Bank.
While agreeing that some other settlements must go in a full peace accord, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he intends to strengthen main settlement blocs.
Earlier Tuesday, Israeli forces left the other two evacuated settlements in the northern West Bank. Palestinians climbed to the roof of the old British fortress in Sanur and hung banners with pictures of Hamas leaders. Palestinians also overran the fourth empty settlement, Homesh.
In Gadim and Kadim, celebrations continued yesterday. Militants said they would continue carrying out attacks in the West bank. "With these guns, we drove them out, and we will drive them out of other areas as well," said one masked gunman from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent group with ties to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah movement.
The four settlements were emptied Aug. 23, a day after Israel removed the last of the settlers from all 21 Gaza settlements under Sharon's "disengagement" plan. Soldiers remained until Tuesday, when Israeli forces buried an empty synagogue building in Sanur, following a Cabinet decision not to tear down the abandoned synagogues.
Unlike Gaza, however, Israeli forces will continue to patrol the area, the military said, as it has not turned over control of the northern West Bank to the Palestinians.
Also Tuesday, a top Palestinian security official announced the Gaza-Egypt border would be opened over the weekend to allow some Palestinians to cross.
Israel shut the Rafah crossing before it withdrew from Gaza last week, saying that people traveling over the border would be temporarily routed through Israeli crossings, so it could ensure no weapons or militants entered Gaza.
After the Israeli pullout, the border exploded in chaos, with thousands of Palestinians and Egyptians clamoring over the wall to visit the other side.
Abbas said on Monday that despite the renovations, the Palestinians did not plan to open crossings without an agreement with Israel.
However, Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub said the border would be briefly opened over the weekend to allow Palestinians with special needs to cross.
A senior Israeli official said Israel would not object to the temporary opening. The official said humanitarian concerns were discussed with Egypt, and Israel "would try to accommodate them."
The terminal, once painted the blue and white of Israel's national colors, was being repainted plain white, the "color of peace," said site coordinator, Mohammed al-Aidi. Instruction signs in Hebrew lay on the floor waiting to be replaced. Turkish ceiling insulation and Jordanian aluminum partitions, used to organize travelers, were being installed in place of the Israeli ones.
Scores of workers on ladders were fixing the ceiling. New X-ray scanners were in place. Water and electricity in the terminal were up and running. About 20 computers with Palestinian records waited to be installed, officials said.
Thousands of people trapped on the wrong side of the border after it was sealed returned home through Rafah in recent days. Busloads of Egyptians were driven out of Gaza on Tuesday and busloads of Palestinians were taken out of Egypt through a border opening.