Sep. 13, 2005. 01:00 AM
'A day of joy and happiness'
MIDDLE EAST BUREAU
MUWASSI, Gaza Strip—Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians celebrated their first day of freedom from Israeli military rule revelling in the forbidden: some plunged into the former Israeli settlements, others plunged into the sea, others still brought their guns to the party, flexing militant muscle with triumphal victory parades.
Awakening to find Israeli troops gone and the ruins of the settlements already ablaze, thousands indulged in the simple pleasure of moving freely beyond the network of now dismantled Israeli checkpoints and watchtowers that until yesterday effectively cut the Gaza Strip into three enclaves.
"Today is a day of joy and happiness that our people were deprived of in the last century," said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who made his own survey of the former settlements yesterday afternoon.
With the rush to the razed settlements came an extraordinary display of scavenging, as thousands of men, women and children threw themselves into the task of mining the rubble for anything of value.
With the rush to water came a series of grim scenes: five Palestinians, two of them children, drowned during spontaneous dips in the Mediterranean. Until yesterday the sea was inaccessible to many who lived on the landward side of the former Israeli settlements, and few learned to swim.
A sixth young man from Rafah nearly met the same fate, but was rescued by Fathi Anada, 25, who worked as a lifeguard before the intifada and heroically revived those skills yesterday with only moments to spare.
"This man hadn't been to the beach in five years, since the intifada started. He was just too anxious and he swam out too far," said Anada as the casualty, by then revived and conscious, was loaded into a Red Crescent ambulance.
A few kilometres south, a family of fishers living on Gaza's sandy shoreline, just across the road from Egypt, laughed when asked whether they'd be joining their compatriots in the sea.
"The sea is the only place we could go for years. Now we want to go to Rafah," said Fatima Najjar, referring to the southern Gaza city so near, yet so difficult to reach during the era of constant Israeli checkpoints.
"This is the beginning of a new life," said her grandfather Khalil, 85. "We thank God for this blessing."
But the wholesale, methodical salvage effort in the former settlements was the most striking element of the Palestinian response to freedom from occupation in Gaza.