Palestinians Torch Synagogues in Former Gaza Settlements

Synagogues in Morag, Netzarim, Kfar Darom set alight; Gov't votes 14-2 against synagogue demolition.

Palestinians moved into the evacuated Gaza Strip settlement of Morag before dawn Monday, after Israel Defense Forces troops pulled out of the area, and set the synagogue on fire. Huge flames leapt into the sky.

Palestinians also set fire to synagogues in the evacuated settlements of Netzarim and Kfar Darom.

In one of the synagogues, gunmen climbed on the roof and waved flags of militant groups, including Hamas, shouting "God is great."

Hours earlier, the Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman said the Palestinian Authority would destroy the synagogues left behind in Gaza by evacuating IDF troops.

All remaining buildings in the evacuated Jewish settlements would be destroyed except for the hothouses, the spokesman, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, told The Associated Press.

Earlier in the day, the Israeli government voted not to demolish the synagogues. The Palestinians expressed dismay at the Israeli decision, saying it puts them in an impossible position because they may be criticized for destroying houses of worship but at the same time they need the space for their development plans for post-Israel Gaza.

"It's better for us and for you to destory the synagogues," Jibril Rajoub, the PA chairman's security adviser, told Israel Radio on Sunday. "I think the synagogues are symbols of the occupation."

Earlier on Sunday, the government voted 14-2 against demolishing the some two dozen synagogues in the evacuated Gaza settlements.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the decision "puts the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does."

Labor ministers Ophir Pines-Paz and Haim Ramon voted in favor of the demolition. Minister Dalia Itzik, also from Labor, abstained.

Earlier in the cabinet meeting, the ministers unanimously gave the Israel Defense Forces the green light to end military rule in the Gaza Strip, installed 38 years ago following the Six-Day War, and approved the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border. However, the Palestinian Authority said the synagogue decision could lead to a delay of the pullout.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the cabinet meeting before the synagogue vote Sunday that he opposed the demolition, but referred to the synagogue buildings - from which all sacred objects have been removed - as "houses that were used as synagogues."

Explaining the reasoning behind his decision, Sharon said it was not possible to relocate the synagogues, and cited recommendations by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz - who called for Sunday's vote in an effort to avert the destruction - and rabbis from Israel and abroad that the synagogues be left standing, the Itim news agency reported.

Supporters of the synagogue destruction say they don't want the Palestinians to desecrate or demolish them, while opponents of the demolition say Jews must not be the ones to destroy synagogues, regardless of what the Palestinians do.

The Yesha Council of settlements responded to the cabinet decision saying, "The Yesha Council welcomes the intelligence and the Jewish emotion that managed, last-minute, to pierce the impermeable hearts of the government ministers."

Meanwhile, Defense Ministry officials affixed signs in Hebrew and Arabic reading "Holy Place" to the exterior wall of each former synagogue.

AG Mazuz slams ministers for backtracking Attorney General Menachem Mazuz sharply criticized ministers who changed their mind on the demolition and decided at the last minute to oppose it, calling the ministers' backtracking an "embarrassing process."

Mazuz said nothing had changed since the government voted two weeks ago to destroy the synagogues, and said the state had defended the demolition before the High Court of Justice, which ruled that destroying the synagogues was permissible.

Mazuz quoted Mofaz as having said two weeks ago that the day after the army withdraws from Gaza, "There will be a tsunami of Hamas, and not even a single synagogue will be preserved."

At the end of August, the cabinet rejected a demand by the chief rabbis to refrain from destroying the synagogues and adopted a proposal submitted by Mofaz, whereby everything possible was to be removed from the synagogues before they were demolished.

At Sunday's cabinet meeting, however, Mofaz gave an emotional speech in favor of leaving the synagogues intact.

"I once again suggest that we do not destroy the synagogues and do not multiply the pain," he said. "Jewish sentiment, Jewish law and deeply significant emotions are involved here, [telling me] I must not give a directive to the Israel Defense Forces to destroy the synagogues. And if critics and cynics say I changed my mind, I accept this with love."

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom explained his decision to vote against demolishing the structures, saying Jewish leaders from all over the world warned him that razing the synagogues could be a dangerous precedent justifying the demolition of Jewish holy places by foreign governments.

"Jews do not destroy synagogues," Shalom said. "I hope the Palestinian Authority will come to their senses and not allow barbarism and vandalism to rule over the synagogues. If this does happen, the world will see what we're dealing with."

Pines-Paz: This is not the Chief Rabbinate Pines-Paz said there was no reason for the government to adopt the position of the Chief Rabbinate, which opposes the demolition, and said he doesn't see why it is "more Jewish" to allow the synagogues to be desecrated or turned into mosques than to be destroyed.

"We're not the Chief Rabbinate, we're the government of Israel," he told Israel Radio after the vote. "We are responsible for anything that happens or doesn't happen."

Some politicians suggested compromise options Sunday, offering proposals beyond either dismantling all the synagogues or leaving them all intact.

National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) said Sunday the synagogues should be dismantled and moved to Israel - an option Sharon said during the cabinet meeting was not feasible. Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra (Likud) suggested leaving four large Gaza synagogues intact, while destroying the rest. And MK Rabbi Michael Melchior (Labor) proposed making the four large synagogues into centers of peace and humanitarian aid.