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Israel to Complete Gaza Pullout by Tuesday


Israeli forces are completing their withdrawal from Gaza with the last soldier expected to be out by Tuesday - slightly ahead of schedule.

Israeli troops were demolishing their remaining military installations in Gaza in one of the last steps before the soldiers leave.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz initially said he expected the pullout completed by Monday. But, he added the departure could be delayed. That is because the Israeli Cabinet must decide what to do with the remaining synagogues in the former Jewish settlements.

Senior rabbis had said the synagogues must not be destroyed, but Palestinian officials have said they want them razed along with the rest of the buildings in the settlements. The cabinet decision is expected Sunday.

It appears likely the Israeli soldiers will be out by Tuesday. The gates of the Kissufim Crossing - once the entry point into the settlements of southern Gaza - will be locked after the last convoy crosses and Israel's 38-year presence in Gaza comes to an end.

Israel will also leave the Philadelphi Corridor - a narrow buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt. Egyptian border police have taken up positions along the corridor to ensure Palestinian militants do not smuggle weapons or men across the boundary into Gaza.

Another controversy has been crossing points for people and goods in and out of Gaza. The Palestinians had wanted unhindered access through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The Israelis objected, saying no mechanisms were in place to check what would be going in and out. A compromise was reached, as Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom explained.

"We reached an agreement with the Egyptians and the Palestinians that we will wait six months before we consider the opening of the Rafah passages for two ways (traffic) in and out," he said. "Until then, for a short time this passage will be open in Nitzana. But, we are building now the new passage in Kerem Shalom, the triangle of the borders between Israel, Egypt and Gaza."

Gaza's air and sea ports were destroyed by the Israelis at the beginning of the intifada five years ago and Palestinians argue Rafah is currently Gaza's only link with the outside world that is not controlled by Israel. They say lack of free access to the outside will turn Gaza into one giant prison.

Even Israel's closest ally, the United States has insisted on freedom of movement for people and goods in Gaza and from Gaza to the West Bank - a point driven home by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit here a few months ago.

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