RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Palestinian boys waded fully clothed into the Mediterranean on once-forbidden beaches. Parents guided children through demolished Jewish settlements, where scavengers grabbed everything from red roof tiles to light posts. Hundreds climbed over a wall separating Gaza and Egypt to reunite with relatives.
Gaza's Palestinians got their first taste of freedom after Israeli troops left the coastal strip Monday. They took full possession of the territory for the first time following hundreds of years of subjugation by the Ottoman Empire (search), the British, the Egyptians and finally the Israelis.
"These are days of glory," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) declared. But he warned of the long road ahead to Palestinian statehood.
The storming of the Egyptian border marred the celebrations, as did a series of deaths.
The Palestinians who clamored over the walls included Islamic militants waving the green Hamas (search) flag, raising Israeli concerns about whether Palestinian and Egyptian security can control the territory and its border.
Egyptian border guards shot and killed one Palestinian; four others, who did not know how to swim, drowned after jumping into the ocean, Palestinian health officials said.
Yet for one day, euphoria poured over this overcrowded and economically depressed sliver of land. Traffic jams paralyzed Gaza as Palestinians marveled at the remnants of Israel's 38-year occupation and went to places that had been off limits for years.
"Since last night, I have been in the street, for no reason, just to breathe the air of freedom," said Samir Khader, a farmer in northern Gaza who had needed Israeli permits to go in and out of his village, flanked by Jewish settlements. "I don't know what the future will bring, but at least, I can come in and out of my house at any time."
Children jumped in the dunes along the Gaza-Egypt border, where Israeli watchtowers topped with machine guns once stood, and collected spent shell casings from the sand.
Sobhey Khader stood along the Philadelphi Road, Israel's former security zone on the border, and looked back on the wide field of rubble and bullet-pocked houses lining the edge of Rafah in southern Gaza. Israeli bulldozers destroyed hundreds of houses there in their search for weapons-smuggling tunnels under the border.
"I'm trying to see us from the Israeli's perspective," he said.
Important issues lie ahead, including a decision over who will control the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and whether Gaza will be allowed to open a seaport and airport, providing it unfettered links to the world. Israel retains control of Gaza's airspace and coastal waters.
Abbas raised a Palestinian flag over the Rafah border crossing to Egypt. The crossing remained closed; Israel shut it last week, and the Israelis and Palestinians have not reached agreement on whether it will be reopened.
Concerned over increased weapons smuggling, Israel initially hesitated to leave the Gaza-Egypt border as part of the pullout. It agreed only after the Egyptian government promised to deploy 750 troops on the frontier to stop the smuggling.
But the border turned to chaos just hours after the Israelis withdrew early Monday, with hundreds of Palestinians climbing over — or going around — the towering wall on the Gaza side and then jumping over the low wall on the Egyptian side. Hooded Palestinian gunmen stood atop the Palestinian wall.
Several trucks filled with gunmen from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups patrolled the border road Monday. Few Palestinian police could be seen.
Five boys ran along the Egyptian patrol road waving a Hamas flag and another group danced around a Hamas flag in full view of Egyptian forces.
Although some Egyptian soldiers warned the Palestinians to stay in Gaza, many soldiers smiled and shook hands with teenagers who climbed over. One Gazan unsuccessfully tried to buy an Egyptian soldier's rifle.
There was some traffic in the other direction as well, as Egyptians — mostly boys smuggling cartons of cigarettes — climbed into Gaza.
Egyptian border guards said they were letting the Palestinians blow off steam and visit relatives whom they had not seen in years. The Egyptians said they would tighten security in coming days.
The guards later shot and killed a Palestinian when dozens of teens tried to climb over the border wall, Palestinian security officials said. It was not clear why the guards took such action after letting others cross.
Militant groups, especially the powerful Hamas, have been vying with the Palestinian Authority for credit for Israel's pullout. Whoever wins the battle for public opinion is likely to reap the benefits in parliamentary elections next year.
Gaza is also seen as a trial run for how Palestinians would handle an independent state, and the world will be watching to see whether the Palestinian Authority is able to rein in militants and bring order to Gaza's lawless streets.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz urged the Palestinians to impose order and prevent attacks on Israel from Gaza — or face a tough response. "We shall know how to act decisively and intensively in the face of any terrorism," he said.
Abbas took a tough line against the border crossings.
"It is absolutely unacceptable for the border to be stormed," he said. "We must resolve this problem in a civilized manner."
Still, Abbas declared Monday "a day of joy and happiness that our people were deprived of in the past century," adding that statehood, not just self-rule in Gaza, remains the ultimate goal. Palestinians want a state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
Militant leaders said they would not disarm as long as Israel controls the West Bank and Jerusalem. "These weapons liberated the land and by these weapons, we will continue the liberation process," said Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Throughout Gaza, though, people were mainly interested in testing the wider new boundaries.
Ten factory workers toured the remnants of the Morag settlement, wandering past scavengers. Nearby, Imad Shaath brought four of his children, aged 6 to 9, to see the settlement. He had told them the violence was over, "but they needed to feel it also," he said.
Hundreds of giddy teenagers ran to a once off-limits beach and jumped into the water fully clothed. Mahmoud Barbakh, 15, said it was his first time in the ocean: "It's the sweetest thing in the whole world."
There were family reunions for thousands of Palestinians living in al-Muwasi, which lay inside the Gush Katif bloc of settlements and was isolated from Gaza by a security fence.
"We didn't sleep at all," said Abdel el Gun, who hosted nearly 20 relatives since his brother Khalil knocked on his door at 2 a.m.
Along the Egyptian border, Juma Abu Amr, 18, emerged from a new tunnel under the Palestinian wall and smiled.
"I wanted to make sure there were no Israelis still there," he said.