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Palestinians celebrate return to Gaza

Associated Press
Published September 13, 2005

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Palestinian boys waded fully clothed into the Mediterranean Sea on once-forbidden beaches. Parents guided children through demolished Jewish settlements, where scavengers grabbed everything from red roof tiles to light posts. Hundreds climbed over a wall separating Gaza and Egypt to reunite with relatives.

Gaza's Palestinians got their first taste of freedom after Israeli troops left the coastal strip Monday. They took full possession of the territory for the first time after hundreds of years of subjugation by the Ottoman Empire, the British, the Egyptians and finally the Israelis.

"These are days of glory," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said. But he warned of the long road to Palestinian statehood.

The storming of the Egyptian border and several deaths marred the celebrations.

The Palestinians who clambered over the walls included Islamic militants waving the green Hamas flag, raising Israeli concerns about whether Palestinian and Egyptian security can control the territory and its border.

Egyptian border guards shot and killed one Palestinian; four others, who did not know how to swim, drowned after jumping into the ocean, health officials said.

Yet for one day, euphoria poured over this overcrowded and economically depressed sliver of land. Traffic jams paralyzed Gaza as Palestinians marveled at the remnants of Israel's 38-year occupation and went to places that had been off limits for years.

"Since last night, I have been in the street, for no reason, just to breathe the air of freedom," said Samir Khader, a farmer in northern Gaza who had needed Israeli permits to go in and out of his village, flanked by Jewish settlements. "I don't know what the future will bring, but at least, I can come in and out of my house at any time."

Sobhey Khader stood along the Philadelphi Road, Israel's former security zone on the border, and looked back on the bullet-pocked houses lining the edge of Rafah in southern Gaza. Israeli bulldozers destroyed hundreds of houses there in their search for weapons-smuggling tunnels under the border.

"I'm trying to see us from the Israeli's perspective," he said.

Abbas raised a Palestinian flag over the Rafah border crossing to Egypt. The crossing remained closed; Israel shut it last week, and the Israelis and Palestinians have not reached agreement on whether it will be reopened.

Concerned over increased weapons smuggling, Israel initially hesitated to leave the Gaza-Egypt border as part of the pullout. It agreed only after the Egyptian government promised to deploy 750 troops on the frontier to stop the smuggling.

But the border turned to chaos just hours after the Israelis withdrew early Monday, with hundreds of Palestinians climbing over - or going around - the towering wall on the Gaza side and then jumping over the low wall on the Egyptian side. Hooded Palestinian gunmen stood atop the Palestinian wall.

Although some Egyptian soldiers warned the Palestinians to stay in Gaza, many soldiers smiled and shook hands with teenagers who climbed over.

There was some traffic in the other direction, as Egyptians - mostly boys smuggling cartons of cigarettes - climbed into Gaza.

Egyptian border guards said they were letting the Palestinians blow off steam and visit relatives whom they had not seen in years. The Egyptians said they would tighten security in coming days.

[Last modified September 13, 2005, 01:46:17]

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