Thousands of jubilant Palestinians poured in to abandoned Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip on Monday, setting fire to empty synagogues and shooting into the air.
The chaos came as the last Israeli soldier left, completing Israel's exit from the territory after 38 years of occupation.
Palestinian police in the settlements stood by helplessly as gunmen raised the flags of militant groups and crowds smashed what was left in the ruins or walked off with doors, window frames, toilets and scrap metal.
Initial plans by police to bar crowds for the first few hours quickly disintegrated, illustrating the weakness of Palestinian security forces and fuelling concerns about chaos after Israel's exit.
Just after sunrise, the last column of tanks rumbled out of Gaza, passing through the Kissufim crossing into Israel. Gaza commander Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi was the last Israeli soldier to leave. "An era has ended," he said.
In a somber farewell ceremony, he expressed hope that the pullout would be a step towards peace.
"The gate that will close behind us is also the gate that will open," he said. "We hope it will be a gate of peace and quiet, a gate of hope and goodwill, of neighborliness," reports IOL.
According to Daily Times, “The sun of freedom rose today over the Gaza Strip for the first time in more than 38 years after the last Israeli soldier left,” trumpeted the official WAFA news agency as Palestinians awoke to a new dawn in their struggle for statehood.
The operation marked Israel’s first full withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory, hailed by the international community as a new chance for peace but a political gamble for veteran right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
By daybreak, thousands of Gazans were flocking towards the evacuated areas, desperate to glimpse the last vestiges of an occupation built on prime real estate for decades declared off limits to Palestinians.
“Much work still needs to be done but nothing can take away from this victory,” said Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, describing it as a “day of joy.”
Smoke spewed into the air from burning rubbish in former settlements as enormous national flags fluttered from telegraph poles while mobs of youths poured in, ransacking, looting and torching synagogues and other buildings.