Text size

Convoys of Israel Defense Forces troops began rolling out of the Gaza Strip around 1 A.M. on Monday, as the army wrapped up its pullout from the coastal territory after 38 years of occupation.

Palestinian security officials said shortly after the IDF pullout started that they had moved into the largest former Israeli settlement in Gaza and raised a Palestinian flag.

Approximately six Israel Defense Forces battalions stationed in Gaza are withdrawing from the Strip via the Erez, Karni and Kissufim crossings. Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, commander of IDF forces in Gaza, is set to be the last of the some 3,000 soldiers to leave and is expected to lock the border's gate behind him at 6 A.M. Monday.

Except for soldiers serving in division headquarters, other soldiers have spent the past two days inside armored vehicles.

In a largely symbolic cabinet vote Sunday, the ministers unanimously gave the IDF the green light to end military rule in the Gaza Strip, installed 38 years ago following the Six-Day War.

Also Sunday, the cabinet approved the withdrawal of IDF forces from the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border, where Egyptian and Palestinian forces began their deployment on Saturday.

The IDF evacuation of the Philadelphi route is to take place simultaneously with the rest of the Gaza withdrawal. On Saturday morning, 200 Egyptian border police began deploying in Rafah on the Egyptian side of the border, as part of the agreement with Israel to deploy a total of 750 Egyptian border police along the Philadelphi route to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.

The IDF is operating joint situation rooms with the Egyptians and the Palestinians to coordinate the withdrawal. An Egyptian state newspaper reported on Sunday that the Egyptian deployment along the route will be completed by Thursday.

Over the past few days, the IDF quickly dismantled the infrastructure of the three military outposts along the Philadelphi route. The steel and concrete wall Israel constructed along the route in recent years will not be dismantled.

Over the weekend, the IDF completed the removal of the logistic infrastructure from the Gaza Strip. Division headquarters is the only building that will be transferred intact to the Palestinians. Other structures, including the District Coordinating Office, the scene of hundreds of security and political meetings between Israelis and Palestinians over the years, were blown up by Israel.

The evacuation of the northern West Bank is expected to be slightly delayed. Military sources said Saturday that the departure of forces from Ganim and Kadim, which have been almost completely demolished, would be almost immediate. However, the evacuation of Sa-Nur and Homesh, and the nearby Dotan base, might take another 10 days or so.

IDF chief: This is PA's true test"We are leaving with our heads high," Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Dan Halutz said Sunday during the ceremony marking the IDF's withdrawal from Gaza.

Halutz also it was up to the Palestinian Authority to take control of the Gaza Strip, enforce law and order and prevent attacks on Israel by powerful militant groups, which refuse to disarm.

"This is their true test. We will not tolerate their ineptitude, turn a blind eye to their failures or ignore acts of terror. They will not be able to shirk their responsibility," he said.

The ceremony marking the IDF withdrawal from Gaza ended early Sunday evening at division headquarters near the evacuated settlement of Neveh Dekalim.

GOC Southern Command Major General Dan Harel noted that 38 years of the IDF's presence in Gaza are coming to an end, and praised the professionalism of the security forces that carried out the pullout.

"We are at the start of a new beginning and a historic opportunity for a better future for both peoples," Harel said.

The ceremony came to an end when troops lowered the flag and then sang "Hatikva," Israel's national anthem.

Only Israelis took part in the ceremony. A joint ceremony marking the Gaza handover to the Palestinians, set to start a few hours prior, was canceled.

IDF officials blamed the cancelation on the Palestinian refusal to attend the ceremony.

"The Palestinians have decided not to participate in the so-called handover ceremony," said a senior Palestinian official. He said that among other things, "the Israelis have provided the Palestinians with no answers on the future of the border crossings, especially Rafah."

The handover ceremony had been set to take place at 3 P.M. Sunday. Kochavi was to take part in a joint ceremony with the Palestinians at the Erez crossing, in which IDF officers were to have given their counterparts in the Palestinian security forces maps detailing Gaza's water, electricity and sewage infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority officials said Sunday that Israel's cabinet decision to leave the Gaza synagogues intact could lead to a delay in the IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.