After 38 years, since the Six Day War in June, 1967 (5727),
Israel withdrew from Gaza on Monday. All Israel was relieved
when the final stages of the withdrawal, the pullout of the
last 3,000 soldiers of the IDF, proceeded in an orderly
fashion with no casualties. On Monday morning at 7 a.m. the
gates of the Kissufim crossing were closed and barricaded
with a huge pile of earth, after Colonel Aviv Kochavi, the
last commander of Gaza, walked through. The IDF held a small
ceremony marking the incident. The Palestinians did not
Government spokesmen said that the withdrawal was coordinated
with the Palestinian Authority (PA). That appears to have
meant that the IDF informed the PA of what was going to
happen at every stage. The PA did not project a strong
presence, though PA police often moved in right after the IDF
left their positions at the various places.
A major topic of discussion in Israel over the days leading
up to the final withdrawal was whether Israel should destroy
the shuls of the Jewish settlements. The issue was before the
Cabinet several times and was also argued before the High
Court several times.
The rabbinical establishment was unanimous in arguing that
Jews should not destroy the synagogues, regardless of what
will happen to them after the Palestinians are in control. In
the end, the rabbinical position prevailed. Although the High
Court ruled that the government may destroy the shuls, the
Cabinet voted overwhelmingly to leave them intact, reversing
its earlier decision to destroy them.
Leading the effort to leave the shuls intact was Defense
Minister Shaul Mofaz. Late last week, after the High Court
rejected a final petition not to destroy the shuls, he
suddenly asked to discuss the issue at the upcoming Cabinet
meeting, indicating that he had changed his mind and was
against destroying the synagogues. Soon, other Likud
ministers, including Sylvan Shalom, Danni Naveh, Yisrael
Katz, Limor Livnat, Tzachi Hanegbi and Gideon Ezra also
announced that they would vote to preserve the shuls. Labor
minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Shalom Simchon announced
that they too wanted to leave the buildings intact.
Although the last soldier left through the Kissufim gate on
Monday morning, the IDF pulled out of most of the settlements
late Sunday night.
One of the last images engraved in the memory of the pullout
from Gaza was a picture of IDF civilian volunteers working to
hang signs reading "Holy Place" in English and Arabic on the
botei knesses left standing.
Yet within less than an hour, sometime after midnight early
Monday morning, a mob of Palestinians was shattering,
breaking, plundering and burning the botei knesses.
Palestinian police, who had already moved in, stood off to
the side, making no effort to stop the barbaric acts.
The first beis knesses to be torched was in Netzarim.
The IDF forces had not even reached the Karni Checkpoint on
their way out of the Gaza Strip before hearing radio reports
the Palestinians had already set fire to the beis
knesses. Turning around, the soldiers could see bullets
streaking in the air and a large fire rising up from the
beis knesses. The stunned soldiers and officers were
consoled by the fact their exit, besiyata deShmaya,
had gone smoothly and without injuries.
After midnight the Palestinians from Khan Yunis raided the
beis knesses in what had once been Morag. The mob flew
PLO and Hamas flags as they shot in the air and launched
fireworks. "Tomorrow we will liberate all of Palestine,"
shouted the mob. They then proceeded to cart off everything
in sight: tables, chairs, furniture and even window frames
and electrical poles.
The next target was the beis knesses at Neveh Dekalim.
Thick clouds of smoke billowed up after the Palestinians
torched it along with the remains of other buildings.
PA Chairman Abu Mazzen hurried to dispatch an announcement
saying the botei knesses had been razed by the PA.
"The Israelis left behind empty structures that were
previously botei knesses. But they removed all of the
religious articles and therefore they are no longer holy
places," he determined.
National Security Advisor Jibril Rajoub also said the that PA
would remove all of the structures left by Israel in order to
remove every trace of "Israeli aggression." Rajoub attacked
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, calling him a "liar." He said
a large portion of the structures did not serve as places of
worship but were used for other purposes and only preceding
the withdrawal were sifrei Torah brought in and the
structures made sacred. "We are resolute in our decision to
remove them," said Rajoub.
Meanwhile "liberation" songs were playing on the sound
systems of Gaza mosques. Residents issued cries of joy over
the loudspeakers. Some of the Gazans marching to the
evacuated settlements held aloft pictures of members of their
organizations who were killed during the Intifadah. Others
kneeled down on the ground as they entered the settlements,
kissing the ground and issuing further calls against
The fires caused little structural damage in the fortress-
like concrete and stone structures, but the Palestinian
Authority said the buildings would be destroyed.
The synagogue buildings were among the few buildings left
standing. Israel sent in bulldozers to level all the houses,
leaving only a few public buildings and the synagogues.
Since the evacuation of the settlers, rabbis from Israel and
all over the world mounted a high-profile campaign to save
the buildings, demanding that the government try to see to it
that they would be protected by the Palestinians or by
international organizations. The Palestinians refused to
protect them. "They left empty buildings that used to be
temples, but they removed all the religious symbols, and they
are no longer religious places," a spokesman explained.
The United States issued a statement criticizing the Israeli
change of policy, complaining that it put the Palestinians in
a position "where it may be criticized for whatever it
President Moshe Katzav referred to the burning of the
botei knesses by Gaza Palestinians as an act of
vandalism. The Palestinian Authority and the local police did
nothing to prevent the burning of the botei knesses
and the masses destroyed the buildings purely for the sake of
vandalism said Katzav. "This is an inhuman and uncultured
act," he added. "The responsibility falls on the Palestinian
Authority, which did not try to prevent this act."
Katzav said he does not dream of returning to Gaza and hopes
"our neighbors will allow us to conduct negotiations to
create permanent borders between us and them."
Yesha Council leaders said they would not alter the
organization's name based on hopes of one day returning to
Gaza to rebuild Gush Katif. (The full name is the Council of
Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza; "Yesha" is an
acronym for the Hebrew Yehuda, Shomron ve'Azza.)
Southern Commander Gen. Dan Harel expressed regret over the
destruction of the botei knesses as well as hope that
the PA would restore order. He noted the IDF has retained
attack capabilities should the necessity arise. In response
to questions by reporters he said the PA and Egypt are
responsible for preventing weapons smuggling over their
shared border and if they fail to do so the IDF would use the
means at its disposal to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza.
PA Chairman Abu Mazzen said the pullout from the Gaza Strip
is a first step toward the end of the conquest of Palestinian
land. "This is an important step and a first day of joy the
likes of which the Palestinian people have not known for the
past 100 years." Still many further steps are needed, he
stressed, and the issue of border crossings, especially at
Rafiach, must be solved to prevent the Gaza Strip from
turning into one big jail.
"I am pleased the soldiers were unharmed during the
evacuation of the Gaza Strip," said Vice Prime Minister
Shimon Peres. "Buildings that were destroyed can always be
rebuilt." Peres called the Israeli presence in Gaza a
historical error and said he was proud Israel found the
strength to rectify it. He said efforts should be made to
ensure the Gaza Strip does not turn into a big jail and a
soup kitchen and that the Palestinians should be allowed to
live there in a dignified manner.