The last Israeli troops left during the night. As dawn broke small crowds of Palestinians began to filter in. They were wandering among the ruins with a mixture of curiosity, excitement and relief.
This was the former Israeli settlement of Nezarim on Tuesday 13 September. Nezarim, a hated symbol of the occupation, split the Gaza Strip in two.
Now it was empty, the last settler gone. Everywhere there were mounds of rubble and uprooted trees. Ariel Sharon had withdrawn the settlers as part of his Gaza disengagement plan.
Many of the boys decided to skip school that day. They were the first to arrive, many carrying their schoolbags. They swarmed over the rubble looking for souvenirs.
A couple were picking mangos off an uprooted tree. Others were hunting for copper wiring they could sell for scrap.
By midday the boys were joined by families. Many were walking around in awe. One family told me they came to see what was behind the high fences of the fortified colonies. During the occupation Palestinians could not get within 200 metres of the wire for fear of being shot.
I found a group of boys standing in the remains of a sniper tower that overlooked the Palestinian camp. “We can finally move freely throughout Gaza and play without anyone shooting at us,” 14 year old Abdullah Yunis told me.
Sitting in the rubble was 26 year old Omar Budran. He lost his foot during a helicopter attack in the early days of the intifada, or uprising.
“It’s an incredible day for me,” he said. “I am overwhelmed with happiness, and I am optimistic over what the future might bring.”
In the former settlement of Kfar Darom, I found young girls from Dair al-Balah camp playing on a slide in an abandoned playground. I visited families near the settlement.
They had lived under curfew since the beginning of the intifada, their houses repeatedly occupied by Israeli troops. Now they were handing out dates and serving coffee to the throngs of visitors. They told me they were looking forward to going out in the evenings without fear.
As we joined the traffic streaming south, Palestinian forces were dismantling an Israeli army watchtower.
In the former settlement of Neve Dekalim, in southern Gaza, some lads were setting fire to Zionist literature.
One leaflet I found near the former synagogue advertised tours to the Gush Qatif settlement. The flyer boasted the settlement was “new Zionism in action”. Just outside the fence you could see the bullet-marked holes of Palestinian houses in Khan Yunis refugee camp.
Beyond the former settlement, Palestinians families crowded onto the beach that had been off-limits since the intifada. Young lads were exploring abandoned sea shacks, others were flying kites or surfing with old fridge doors.
Everyone was there—men, women, children—picnicking by the sea.
We reached the border surrounded by high walls and watchtowers.
In Rafah, astride the border with Egypt, word slowly went around that the Israeli troops had abandoned their posts. Small crowds began moving towards a gate used by Israeli tanks during raids, their tracks freshly imprinted in the sand.
A group of men forced the fence open and crowds began to file into Egypt. Sympathetic Egyptian border guards were allowing people through.
As the day wore on more and more people began to crowd at the gate.
Some just wanted to have a look at Egypt, others took the opportunity to visit family they had not seen for years, or do some shopping. As the crowds swelled fighters blew a hole in another section of the wall.
Overhead Israeli drones whirred menacingly. “They’re never going to leave us alone,” said one young Rafah resident whose brother had been killed during one of the Israeli offensives.
“They will continue to make our lives miserable, if not with tanks, then with unmanned drones.”
For three days we were able to cross into Egypt, and Egyptians were able to cross into Palestine.
Last Friday the Palestinian authorities arrived to rebuild the wall. After so many years of struggle, after so much sacrifice all we had was a few days of freedom. Once again the prison doors have closed on us.