Palestinians torch synagogues in former Gaza settlements

By The Associated Press and Haaretz Service Palestinians set fire to at least four synagogues in evacuated Gaza Strip settlements early Monday, a day after the cabinet reversed an earlier decision and said Israel Defense Forces should withdraw without demolishing the synagogues. The Palestinians torched synagogues in Kfar Darom, Morag, Netzarim and Neveh Dekalim. Supporters of the demolition had warned that the Palestinians would desecrate or destroy the synagogues, but opponents – including Israel’s chief rabbis – said Israel must not be responsible for the destruction, no matter what the Palestinians do. As they left their homes last month, the settlers took the Torah scrolls from their synagogues, as well as prayer books and other holy items – symbolizing the end of the use of the buildings as houses of prayer. The fires caused little structural damage in the fortress-like concrete and stone structures, but the Palestinian Authority said the buildings would be destroyed. Thousands of celebrating Palestinians swamped the evacuated settlement of Neveh Dekalim early Monday just after Israel Defense Forces soldiers withdrew, setting fire to a building that just last month served as a rabbinical college. There were similar scenes throughout Gaza as Palestinians headed straight for empty synagogues Israel left intact. Flames shot skyward from the synagogue building in the isolated former settlement of Morag in southern Gaza, minutes after Israeli soldiers left and hundreds of Palestinians stormed in. „They [Israelis] destroyed our homes and our mosques,” said a man who gave his name only as Abu Ahmed. „Today it is our turn to destroy theirs.” In Neveh Dekalim, gunman from several militant factions stormed through the settlement, with some planting a flag from the ruling Fatah movement on the roof of the seminary as others set a fire inside. The synagogue buildings were a focus of Palestinian anger after 38 years of Israeli military rule, primarily because they were among the only buildings left standing. Shortly after removing the last of the settlers two weeks ago, Israel sent in bulldozers to level the houses, leaving only a few public buildings and the synagogues. In Netzarim, a settlement southwest of Gaza City that caused many problems for Palestinians because of the extreme measures Israel took to protect settlers there, gunmen climbed on the roof of the synagogue and raised flags of militant groups. They chanted, „God is great,” and, „We don’t want anything to remind us of the occupation.” Before dawn, the Netzarim synagogue was ablaze, with bright orange flames leaping through the roof and the walls. Palestinian police stood by and watched, admitting they were outnumbered by the crowds and had little motivation to stop them. An officer who refused to give his name said, „The people have the right to do what they are doing.” Israel TV said crowds of Palestinians entered Kfar Darom in central Gaza and set several fires, including in the synagogue, scene of the harshest resistance by settlers and their backers to the pullout. Last year the cabinet ruled that the synagogues would be torn down. Since the evacuation of the settlers, however, rabbis mounted a high-profile campaign to save the buildings, demanding that the government see to it that they would be protected by the Palestinians or by international organizations. On Sunday, the cabinet reversed itself, voting 14-2 not to destroy the synagogue buildings. The Palestinians refused to protect them, saying they wanted nothing that symbolized the occupation to remain. Early Monday, Abbas said the structures would be dismantled like all the others. „They left empty buildings that used to be temples, but they removed all the religious symbols, and they are no longer religious places.” The United States issued a statement criticizing the Israeli change of policy, complaining that it put the Palestinians in a position „where it may be criticized for whatever it does.” Critics of the rabbis charged that they were playing politics under the guise of religion, hoping that the Palestinians would destroy the buildings and make themselves targets for criticism from Israeli opponents of the pullout – led by the same rabbis. BPI-info