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Last Updated: Friday, 19 August 2005, 19:14 GMT 20:14 UK
Abbas voices joy at Gaza pullout
Mahmoud Abbas at rally
Abbas said he hoped Gaza's isolation was coming to an end
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has described his people's delight at the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza this week.

He told a cheering, flag-waving crowd in Gaza that they were experiencing "historic days of joy" - but he warned them great challenges still lay ahead.

Mr Abbas said he hoped Israel's exit from Gaza was a precursor to a pullout from the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Israeli forces are to resume evicting settlers and their supporters from Gaza after the Jewish Sabbath.

Efforts to remove die-hard opponents of the withdrawal plan were suspended on Friday evening at the start of the Sabbath.

Israeli officials said that the evacuation of the settlements had taken place a lot faster than expected, with only four of the original 21 settlements yet to be cleared on Friday.

Troops stormed through burning barricades to evacuate the small settler outpost of Gadid on Friday, meeting little resistance compared with the defiance they met in the Kfar Darom and Neve Dekalim settlements on Thursday.

Several protesters evacuated from Gadid on Friday broke out of the bus taking them away and escaped into Mawasi, a Palestinian area on the Gaza coast which is hemmed in by a Jewish settlement bloc.

They were later captured by Israeli soldiers.

'Tomorrow Jerusalem'

Mr Abbas urged Palestinians to unite as he celebrated the Israeli withdrawal with a crowd at Gaza's International Airport.

Neve Dekalim

"The Israeli occupation is leaving today. Let us allow them to leave and let us not give them any reason to delay," he said.

Mr Abbas said he hoped the airport building - currently not in use - would soon be open to traffic, opening up a link between Gaza and the world beyond.

"Today we are visitors to the airport," he said. "Tomorrow we will come here as travellers."

But BBC correspondent Alan Johnston says Israel might want to keep control of Gaza's sea and air links for fear that Palestinian militant groups may use them to smuggle in heavy weaponry.

Mr Abbas pledged to rebuild Palestinian homes destroyed during the Israeli occupation of Gaza.

Celebrations were also held in the town of Rafah in southern Gaza, where Palestinians said prayers at the gates of an abandoned Jewish settlement.

Many wore shirts depicting the Palestinian flag and the slogan: "Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem", the Associated Press news agency reports.

'Moving scenes'

Israeli troops have meanwhile begun digging trenches around Gaza's evacuated settlements in order to prevent Palestinians moving in.

Celebrations in Gaza
Mr Abbas said it was a moment of historic joy for the Palestinians

Israel plans to demolish most of the settlement buildings before handing back control of them to the Palestinian Authority.

The bulldozers and cranes have already begun work in the empty settlement of Kerem Atzmona.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon voiced fury at protesters' attacks on the security forces - but he also said he was saddened by scenes from the pullout.

"When I see these families with tears in their eyes and police officers with tears in their eyes, it's impossible to look at this without weeping yourself," Mr Sharon said.

The evacuated settlers have been offered temporary housing by the government but many have turned it down, reports the Associated Press news agency, with some choosing instead to camp in Jerusalem near the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.

The unilateral Gaza withdrawal marks the first transfer of Palestinian land seized by Israel in 1967.


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See some of the deserted Jewish settlements in Gaza



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