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After decades, last Jewish settlers evacuate Gaza

Sharon, Abbas meet to stress peace efforts

NETZARIM, Gaza Strip -- The last Jewish settlers left Gaza yesterday aboard armored buses for Israel, ending decades of turbulent occupation long denounced as a stumbling block to Mideast peace.

Before leaving, the holdouts in Netzarim -- one of Gaza's oldest settlements -- staged a tearful goodbye procession past abandoned homes, marching behind Torah scrolls and a giant wooden menorah.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had a five-minute phone conversation yesterday evening to discuss the Israeli pullout, and each expressed their commitment to peace, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. It was their first conversation since a June 21 meeting in Jerusalem.

Israel has occupied the overcrowded Mediterranean coastal strip since capturing it from Egypt in the 1967 Mideast war. Home to 1.3 million mostly impoverished Palestinians, Gaza has been devastated by frequent battles between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

''We completed today the evacuation of the Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip," said Major General Dan Harel, head of Israel's southern command.

Harel said it would take several weeks before the Israeli military dismantles its bases and hands over the territory to the Palestinians.

''We don't plan to allow any Palestinians into the area until the evacuation process is complete and we feel we are ready."

Palestinians living near Netzarim were delighted to see the settlers go. ''They are very bad neighbors," said Saadi Helo, 44, a Palestinian farmer. ''They turned our lives into nightmares. They occupied the land, leveled our farms, demolished our houses, killed our beloved, and spared no effort to attack us."

In the final day of the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza, dozens of Netzarim's families prayed in the community's synagogue, weeping uncontrollably as the Torah scrolls were taken from their ark for the last time. They then held their farewell procession.

One family was left behind, spending last night alone in their house after every neighbor had left. Hanan Visner, a primary school teacher, said the army overlooked his house and did not knock on their door until it was too late to move him and his 11 children. ''It was a mistake," he said. The family plans to leave today with Israeli troops.

Within a few days, Netzarim will be plowed under by bulldozers, as Israel destroys homes in all 21 settlements, part of an agreement with the Palestinians. They consider the settlers' single-story homes unsuitable for Palestinian housing needs.

Abbas said Israel's unilateral withdrawal was only the first step.

''Tomorrow they will start leaving part of the West Bank," Abbas told a group of 400 Palestinians disabled in uprisings against Israel. ''It's a beginning of the full withdrawal from all the settlements. We will not close our eyes. We will not rest until they leave from all our land."

But Sharon, who concluded that the Gaza settlements were too difficult to defend and that keeping Gaza posed a threat to the Jewish character of Israel, said he intended to keep building Jewish homes in the West Bank.

At a meeting of parliament's security committee, Sharon said Israel would create territorial contiguity between Israel's internationally recognized border and the areas that house most of the more than 220,000 West Bank settlers -- a plan that probably would expand the West Bank's Jewish population.

International peace negotiators and the Palestinians have said any expansion of West Bank settlements would violate the US-backed ''road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The prime minister said the Palestinians must respond to the Gaza pullout by disarming militant factions and overhauling their government.

Last night, thousands of Gaza evacuees flooded into Jerusalem for nighttime prayers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, many of them praying for a swift return to Gaza.

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