JERUSALEM – Powerful explosions ripped apart headquarters and sent water and communication towers crashing to the ground Friday as Israel destroyed the last of its military facilities in the Gaza Strip (search) and prepared to hand over the territory to the Palestinians early next week.
The demolitions came as Palestinians buried a former top security chief and relative of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search). Moussa Arafat's assassination Wednesday underscored the chaos plaguing Gaza just days before the Palestinian Authority is to take control.
The destruction of the military installations erased from the Gaza landscape most of the remaining symbols of Israel's 38-year occupation of the coastal strip, where 8,500 Jewish settlers lived among nearly 1.4 million Palestinians until Israel cleared out all 21 Jewish settlements two weeks ago.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) said he expects all Israeli soldiers out of Gaza by Monday, or Tuesday at the latest if the Israeli Cabinet decides that troops should raze more than two dozen synagogues still standing in the otherwise demolished Jewish settlements. The alternative is to leave them intact, with the expectation the Palestinians will preserve the buildings.
On Friday, a communications tower buckled, then collapsed as the explosives that packed it were detonated. Another powerful explosion tore apart the building housing Israel-Palestinian liaison offices, sending pieces of the structure flying into the air. Blow torches cut through the steel supports of the overpass that connected Israel to the main Gaza settlement bloc, and massive cranes hauled away pieces of the flyover as they were dismantled.
Soldiers left without bases and guard posts were to take shelter in armored vehicles until the pullout. The head of Israel's forces in Gaza, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, is to be the last soldier to leave the coastal strip and will lock the gate of the Kissufim border crossing in a small ceremony.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said: "I hope that with the disappearance of occupation from Gaza, hope will be revived in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis, that instead of military locations, Israel will one day have an embassy in the state of Palestine, and Palestine will have an embassy in the state of Israel."
The assassination of former Palestinian security chief Moussa Arafat in Gaza City by dozens of gunmen Wednesday underscored the weakness of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the unchecked power of armed gangs as his government prepares to take control of the coastal strip.
A military funeral was held for Arafat in Gaza City on Friday. But in a worrisome sign of the rampant chaos in Gaza, Abbas canceled his plans to deliver a eulogy after dozens of gunmen loyal to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority fired thousands of bullets in the air outside his office during the funeral procession.
Before Arafat was interred, his coffin was escorted to his home by 100 Palestinian police cars and dozens of other vehicles carrying gunmen from the ruling Fatah movement.
As part of its departure from Gaza, Israel is to abandon its control of a dangerous border road between Gaza and Egypt where Palestinian snipers have routinely fired on Israeli patrols. On Friday, the Israeli military cut short a scheduled press tour of the frontier zone, citing the risk of possible Palestinian gunfire.
Meanwhile, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, said Washington expects Israel to dismantle more than 100 unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts, in line with its obligations under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
"We still expect as a country that Israel is going to fulfill its commitment," Kurtzer told Israel Radio Friday. "We have no reason to believe that Israel will try to evade its responsibility."
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said Israel has set aside plans to press Washington for $2 billion to help finance the Gaza withdrawal because of the enormous damage from Hurricane Katrina.
A high-level Israeli delegation that was to discuss the aid request with U.S. officials has postponed a trip to Washington, said ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "The issue (of U.S. aid) is not on the table at the moment," Regev said. "Everyone's dealing with Katrina."