NETZARIM, Gaza Strip – The last Jewish settlers left Gaza on Monday aboard armored buses for Israel, ending decades of turbulent occupation long denounced as a stumbling block to Mideast peace.
Before leaving, the holdouts in Netzarim (search) — one of Gaza's oldest settlements — staged a tearful goodbye procession past abandoned homes, marching behind Torah scrolls and a giant wooden menorah.
Before dawn Tuesday, thousands of Israeli troops moved toward two settlements in the West Bank, where some 2,000 extremists have holed up with an arsenal of stun grenades, gas canisters and automatic weapons, defying orders to leave.
Troops were due to move into the West Bank settlements at daybreak Tuesday, the next — and so far riskiest — operation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians.
Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) had a five-minute phone conversation Monday evening to discuss the Israeli pullout, and each expressed their commitment to peace, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. It was their first conversation since a June 21 meeting in Jerusalem.
Israel has occupied the overcrowded Mediterranean coastal strip since capturing it from Egypt in the 1967 Mideast war. Home to 1.3 million mostly impoverished Palestinians, Gaza has been devastated by frequent battles between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.
"We completed today the evacuation of the Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel's southern command.
Harel said it would take several weeks before the Israeli military dismantles its bases and hands over the territory to the Palestinians.
"We don't plan to allow any Palestinians into the area until the evacuation process is complete and we feel we are ready."
The Gaza pullout represents the first time Israel is abandoning territory claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. The settlers will receive an average of $200,000-$300,000 in compensation.
Palestinians living near Netzarim were delighted to see the settlers go.
"They are very bad neighbors," said Saadi Helo, 44, a Palestinian farmer. "They turned our lives into nightmares. They occupied the land, leveled our farms, demolished our houses, killed our beloved and spared no effort to attack us."
In the final day of the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza, dozens of Netzarim's families prayed in the community's synagogue, weeping uncontrollably as the Torah scrolls were taken from their ark for the last time. They then held their farewell procession.
Afterward, soldiers and settlers walked arm-in-arm to the red-and-white buses with tinted bulletproof windows that ferried them out of Gaza. The rabbi's 5-year-old daughter put a handful of sand in her purse.
One family was left behind, spending Monday night alone in their house after every neighbor had left. Hanan Visner, a primary school teacher, said the army overlooked his house and did not knock on their door until it was too late to move him and his 11 children.
"It was a mistake," he told The Associated Press.
The family plans to leave Tuesday with Israeli troops.
Visner, 47, said leaving Gaza was especially wrenching because of the sacrifices his family experienced. His father was fatally stabbed three years ago by a Palestinian in the synagogue. His wife's sister was killed in another settlement by a mortar shell fired by Palestinian militants.
Within a few days, Netzarim will be plowed under by bulldozers, as Israel destroys homes in all 21 settlements, part of an agreement with the Palestinians. They consider the settlers' single-story homes unsuitable for Palestinian housing needs.
Abbas said Israel's unilateral withdrawal was only the first step.
"Tomorrow they will start leaving part of the West Bank," Abbas told a group of 400 Palestinians disabled in uprisings against Israel. "It's a beginning of the full withdrawal from all the settlements. We will not close our eyes. We will not rest until they leave from all our land."
But Sharon, who concluded that the Gaza settlements were too difficult to defend and that keeping Gaza posed a threat to the Jewish character of Israel, said he intended to keep building Jewish homes in the West Bank.
At a meeting of parliament's security committee, Sharon said Israel would create territorial contiguity between Israel's internationally recognized border and the areas that house most of the 230,000 West Bank settlers — a plan that likely would expand the West Bank's Jewish population.
The prime minister said the Palestinians must respond to the Gaza pullout by disarming militant factions and reforming their own government.
But while Sharon won praise for the orderly evacuation of Gaza, international peace negotiators and the Palestinians have said any expansion of West Bank settlements would violate the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Thousands of Gaza evacuees flooded into Jerusalem for nighttime prayers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, many of them praying for a swift return to Gaza.
Some evacuated settlers set up tent cities on vacant Israeli land near Gaza's borders, with signs at the perimeters calling them "refugee camps." Sharon has called the camps a political ploy to create sympathy and insists there is ample compensation and housing for evacuated settlers.
Meanwhile, the army braced for potential violence in the West Bank, which many nationalist Israelis consider the heart of the biblical Land of Israel.
In Sanur, the most hard-line West Bank settlement earmarked for evacuation, young men welded bars onto the open windows of an old British building known as "the fortress," apparently getting ready to make a stand against soldiers.
On the roof, settlers flew a hand-painted Israeli flag from a refugee boat that in 1947 tried to break the British blockade of pre-independence Israel. A sign under the flag said: "The British didn't succeed in expelling. And you?"
In a second day of clashes, about 70 extremists tussled with soldiers at the nearby settlement of Kedumim after staging a protest at a road junction. News reports said 12 people were arrested.
Israeli officers said they were prepared to use less restraint than they did in Gaza if the extremists get out of control in the West Bank.