NETZARIM, Gaza Strip The last Jewish settlement in Gaza was evacuated today, wrapping up Israel s historic pullout from the coastal strip after settlers held a farewell march behind Torah scrolls and a massive menorah, then boarded armored buses and left.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke by telephone and expressed their commitment to peace the first conversation between the two since the pullout started, a senior Palestinian negotiator said.
The leaders spoke for about five minutes, with Abbas telling Sharon, We are your partners for peace, negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
He added that he appreciated the cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces during the withdrawal.
As the Gaza withdrawal ended and Israeli troops prepared to clear out four settlements in the West Bank Sharon said he would expand other large West Bank communities.
The settlers left Netzarim in a caravan of buses with Israeli flags poking out of darkened bulletproof windows and private cars and trucks loaded with belongings. A settlement leader sat in the front of the first bus clutching a Torah.
Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel s southern command, declared the evacuation of Gaza over.
Although several stragglers were reported to still be in Netzarim, the army said no one was left.
Harel said it would take several weeks before the Israeli military dismantles its bases and hands over the territory to the Palestinians.
An exultant Abbas told a group of wounded Palestinian fighters that the evacuation of Gaza and four small West Bank settlements was only the beginning of the end of Israel s occupation.
More than 5,000 troops, meanwhile, headed to two militant West Bank settlements to be evacuated Tuesday. Security forces braced for confrontations, saying 2,000 ultranationalist youths holed up there planned to resist violently. Security officials said militants had hoarded stun grenades and tear gas canisters, and planned to hurl burning tires onto rivers of cooking oil.
In Netzarim, the 600 residents of the farming community, one of Gaza s first settlements, put up no fight after reaching an agreement with the military on a quiet departure, in contrast to the struggle put up last week in Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom.
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