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As Gaza Settlers Leave, Palestinians Cheer, Plan

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For the first time since the pullout began, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke out today. He told cheering crowds that Israel's pullout from Gaza is a first step that would hopefully end with further withdrawals from the West Bank and Jerusalem. NPR's Peter Kenyon has that part of the story.

PETER KENYON reporting:

After staying in the background as scenes of Israeli soldiers clashing with Jewish settlers flashed around the world, Mahmoud Abbas spent the day at public events. He attended a Friday prayer ceremony to honor Yasser Arafat, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and others referred to as the martyrs who gave their lives to free Gaza. Then he traveled to the still-closed Gaza Airport in the southern Gaza Strip where he spoke to a cheering crowd.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Authority): (Through Translator) Today we are witnessing a historic joy and happiness following the exit of the Israeli occupation from Gaza Strip.

(Soundbite of children playing in surf)

KENYON: The day's events were seemingly designed to steal the thunder of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other armed factions which have been holding their own victory celebrations all week. At Gaza's long, sandy beach, children played in the surf a few yards from where Islamic Jihad men in camouflage and face masks trotted in line onto waiting boats, mostly Gaza fishing boats hired for the afternoon. Islamic Jihad official Mohammed al-Hindi said the demonstration was to mark a mostly forgotten chapter in the intifada that raged for nearly the past five years.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-HINDI (Islamic Jihad): (Through Translator) Islamic Jihad had its own naval squad that, in fact, destroyed one of Israel's gunboats.

(Soundbite of bulldozer)

KENYON: But for Gazans on the front lines of Israel's settlement project here, the harsh realities of everyday life press too hard on the consciousness to permit much debate over who gets credit for what, now that the Israeli army and settlers are leaving. Fifty-one-year-old Noah Bashir(ph) has spent his life in the shadow of the settlement of Kfar Darom. His olive groves are gone, taken by Israeli bulldozers like the one now moving earth into a berm along a road outside the settlement.

(Soundbite of bulldozer)

KENYON: Forty-two-year-old Adell Bashir(ph) is nearby, his left arm hanging limp at his side. He says last year, Israeli soldiers shot him as he lay resting in the doorway of his house. He's had two surgeries and will need several more if he's to have any hope of using the arm again.

Noah Bashir points to a family walking to their house nearby, carrying a large white flag as they cross a field in the shadow of an Israeli guard tower. He's looking forward to the day when Gazans don't have to signal surrender to reach their front door, and he doesn't want any Palestinian violence or even premature celebrations to delay that moment.

Mr. NOAH BASHIR (Gazan): (Through Translator) I don't agree with the celebrations right now. I believe we should be happy, but we can be happy by ourselves because those Israelis are waiting for any mistake that we make to change things.

KENYON: Bashir speaks of immediate simple needs. He hopes the settlement lands will someday hold Palestinian homes for some of the young couples who can't get married because they have nowhere to move. But he implicitly understands the tangled politics hemming in both sides at this critical moment. He's seen Israeli soldiers moving in, however gently, on Jewish settlers. And he knows Mahmoud Abbas will have to take on the Palestinian armed factions if he wants to enact his vision of a Palestinian state. And while Bashir has spent much of his life literally on the front lines, his comments could reflect the situation of any number of Palestinians or Israelis for that matter.

Mr. BASHIR: (Through Translator) Because until this moment, I'm sitting in my house unsafe, 'cause I stay between the two fires, the fires of Arabs and the fires of Jews.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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