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Reveling and destruction in Gaza

Palestinians, free to roam, pour into settlements

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- The clang and clatter inside the synagogue was deafening. One man wielded the flat of an axe to wrench off the aluminum window frames. Another hammered at the marble altar with a sledgehammer. A third threw chunks of rubble at the light fixtures.

They were among thousands of Palestinians -- some on a scavenger hunt, some on a mission of destruction, and many simply rapt with curiosity and excitement -- who poured into the abandoned Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip yesterday on the first day of Palestinian control after Israeli forces formally completed their withdrawal.

It was a day of stunning images. Palestinians wandered among the rubble of hundreds of houses demolished by the departing forces, moving freely within the sandy strip for the first time after 38 years of Israeli control.

Dozens of Palestinian children swam and frolicked on a beach where teenage settlers had surfed a few weeks before. Blue and green wooden fishing boats, forbidden to motor along the Mediterranean shore for the past four years, sped back and forth leaving white wakes. On roads that had been tightly controlled by Israeli checkpoints, convoys of militants from rival groups, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, rode together from settlement to settlement, brandishing flags and rocket-propelled grenades and alternately blasting revolutionary songs and soaring techno-instrumental pieces in the vein of ''Chariots of Fire."

Perhaps the most striking scenes were in Neve Dekalim, which until last month was the largest settlement and the center of protest against the withdrawal. At the red-tiled gatehouse, where teenage Jewish girls once handed supporters orange bracelets, Palestinian soldiers called out, ''Peace be with you!" and ''Welcome!" Streets of large, red-tiled villas had been reduced to waist-high piles of rubble by the Israelis before they withdrew, and impoverished Palestinians carried off what they could: a toilet bowl, a newspaper stand, cartloads of leafy branches from uprooted trees.

Mohammed Hamdani, 31, surveyed the beach, as certain the land was his as the settlers had been sure that it was theirs. He felt, he said, like a child who hadn't seen his mother for 38 years.

''Then he sees her," he said, ''and someone tells him, 'This is your mother.' "

Palestinian security forces said they could not keep out the thousands of people who pressed close to the settlement barriers as the last Israelis left.

''We cannot open fire. It is the day of victory," said Sergeant Ahmed Mustafa, 25, a member of the riot police force, as he watched young men, some in camouflage uniforms, setting a fire in the Neve Dekalim synagogue that had hosted emotional scenes last month as Israeli troops carried out weeping teenage protesters.

Israeli officials were quick to condemn the destruction of synagogues, saying it proved the Palestinian Authority could not control its people or credibly negotiate for peace. But Palestinian security officials said the Israelis had not given them enough time to position themselves to defend public buildings. Mohammed Dahlan, the minister of civil affairs, said that by changing their minds at the last minute and deciding not to demolish the synagogues, Israelis had set a ''political trap" -- one that could later be used to justify extremist attacks on mosques.

''It's not appropriate, but I can understand it," Mustafa said as a man hammered through the door of the synagogue. ''It comes after five years of intifadah," the violent uprising and suicide-bomb campaign that began in 2000, ''and 38 years of occupation. The Palestinian people are expressing their anger."

Synagogues and other public buildings could have been useful as Palestinians rebuild, he added, ''but the problem is that the people want to destroy everything that remains from the occupation. We cannot impose our will on the people."

Dodging shattering plastic and glass in the entryway of the Neve Dekalim synagogue, Basil Qawaida, 13, showed off a plastic bag full of prizes he had scavenged for his mother and four younger brothers and sisters: A yellow, child-sized helmet that read, ''Police." A green toy car. A soccer ball. An ice cube tray. A baby's rattle.

Ibrahim Abu Sbeh, 19, standing nearby, said it was wrong to deface ''a holy place," but said Palestinian authorities should tear down the synagogues to prevent Israelis from using them as a pretext to return.

Even as they explored the rubble, Palestinians worried and debated about the problems they face as the troubled Gaza Strip becomes their laboratory for a future state.

''All the factions have to unite and become one hand to rebuild Palestine," Abu Sbeh said. ''But I am afraid there will be civil war."

As dawn rose over Netzarim, a former settlement sandwiched between the concrete blocks of refugee camps and Gaza City neighborhoods, the orange globe of the sun shone through wisps of smoke rising from trash piles and the flags of the militants, planted in the rubble -- green for Hamas and black and gold for Islamic Jihad.

There was no Palestinian flag -- the nationalist symbol that now represents the official Palestinian Authority. Ehab al-Baz, a Hamas supporter, explained, ''We got here first."

Mohammed Haj Ahmed, 30, and Sa'id Siyam, 18, sparred over whether militants should still fire Qassam rockets that killed many settlers over the years.

Siyam said more rockets would bring ''revenge for the martyrs" and help push the Israelis from more territory; Ahmed said it was a bad idea, because it would bring Israelis charging back into Gaza.

''They are welcome," Siyam said with a flourish of bravado.

Despite the eye-catching scenes at several synagogues, the atmosphere most of the day was quieter, conveying more wonderment than violence.

Women in headscarves walked hours along roads and clambered down sand dunes to explore the settlements. Men stood atop the pylons of a demolished bridge that had carried a settler-only road over Gaza's main north-south thoroughfare for Palestinians. That road used to be closed for hours, sometimes days, at a time to protect settlers' cars. Yesterday, cars flowed freely.

Mohammed Maluala'in, 33, rushed out of his house in pajamas at dawn when he heard that the Israeli army had left Rafiah Yam, the abandoned Jewish settlement separated by a few hundred yards of sandy no-man's land from his concrete apartment block in Rafah, on the Egyptian border.

That meant he and his neighbors, whose houses are pockmarked with bullet holes from years of conflict, would no longer have a nighttime curfew. They'd no longer have to thread their way through each other's back yards instead of walking on the street facing the settlement, where suspicious movements once drew Israeli fire.

He was still standing by the gate in mild shock yesterday afternoon. He knew he had a silly grin on his face.

''I'm in a good mood," he said, giggling.

Three lanes' worth of cars, trucks and donkey carts were jammed on the narrow track, many of their wheels mired in the sand. People stumbled between them up the slippery dune. A convoy of militants in masks honked and waved AK-47s, stuck in the sand like everyone else.

Globe correspondent Sa'id Ghazali contributed to this story.

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