GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Tens of thousands of Palestinians crowded Gaza City's small harbor Friday to celebrate the impending Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, waving flags and hearing promises from their leader that the West Bank (search) and Jerusalem will be next.
The government-organized rally under the theme "Setting Sail for Freedom" was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' (search) most high-profile attempt to seek credit for the pullout, and defuse claims by Hamas that its attacks had driven Israel out.
Abbas, surrounded by security guards, told the crowd: "From here, from this place, our nation and our masses are walking toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."
Yet tensions between Abbas and Hamas became apparent when Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan (search) said the Palestinian flag must be the official banner at all celebrations. He did not refer to Hamas directly, but the group has said it plans its own military-style celebrations, and is sewing thousands of its own green banners.
"This era is the era of unity, and the era that will end any competition or disagreement," Dahlan told the crowd.
Rabiya Hissi, 52, came to the rally with her two grandchildren. As the wife of a fisherman, Hissi's family suffered for years from Israeli army limits on how far out to sea Palestinians could fish.
"We have been waiting for this minute for ages," Hissi said. "We have been waiting for joy and peace in our streets instead of blood and fear. I hope that the future of the coming generations will be a promising one."
Hamas, meanwhile, invited TV cameramen for the first time to film about 1,000 militants training ahead of the pullout. The release of the pictures of militants rappelling from high-rise walls and jumping through hoops of fire was seen as a challenge to the Palestinian Authority.
But it was unclear whether the training — which included the infiltration and attack of a Jewish settlement — meant the group would fire on withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers, despite demands by the Palestinian leadership that they allow Israel to evacuate the area quietly.
Israel is to begin its withdrawal from Jewish settlements in Gaza early Monday and later pull out of four West Bank settlements. The Israeli Defense Ministry said Friday it wants to complete the withdrawal by Sept. 4.
Also Friday, a private economic foundation bought most of the greenhouses in Gaza settlements for $14 million and will hand them over to the Palestinians, said Yossi Beilin, leader of the Israeli Yahad Party. By keeping the greenhouses intact, the Economic Cooperation Foundation can ensure employment for about 4,000 Palestinians, said Beilin, who heads the foundation.
By Friday, many greenhouses had been abandoned. In Neve Dekalim, Gaza's largest settlement, yellow peppers rotted on the vines. One greenhouse had been completely uprooted, the only thing left a plastic tarp covering the sandy surface.
Farmers in the settlements grew herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers, mostly for export.
Eitan Hadari, a representative of the Gaza settler farmers, said 90 percent of the Gaza hothouses were included in the deal and the rest had already been dismantled by their owners. The settlers will receive up to $4,000 per greenhouse, he said.
A U.S. government agency, USAID, had been negotiating with the Gaza settlers to buy the greenhouses. However, the Palestinian Authority objected to the use of U.S. government funds for such a deal, because it could be seen as paying compensation to the settlers.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested in an interview published Friday that Israel could eventually relinquish more West Bank settlements. He reiterated, however, that Israel would keep major West Bank settlement blocs. "Not everything will be there. The issue will be raised during the final status talks with the Palestinians," Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Sharon said he is convinced the withdrawal from Gaza will benefit Israel in the long run. "I have no regrets," he told Yediot. "Even if I had known the level of [settler] resistance, I would have done it."
When Sharon decided more than a year ago to withdraw from Gaza, captured 38 years ago, he reasoned that would make it easier for Israel to hold on to the major West Bank settlement blocs, where most of the 240,000 settlers live. In all, 9,000 settlers are to be uprooted.