RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas promised freedom, jobs, and homes for the people of Gaza once Israel completes its pullout. Hours before he spoke yesterday, at Gaza's abandoned airport, an Israeli bulldozer demolished the first Jewish settlement, clearing land for Palestinian development.
In the settlement of Gadid, Israeli troops crashed through a flaming barricade of cars, wooden planks, and garbage bins and expelled the last settlers, who were holed up in a synagogue. Then, Israel suspended the eviction of settlers for the Jewish Sabbath, having evacuated 87 percent of Gaza's settlers in just 2 1/2 days. All but four settlements were vacant.
Smiling and waving to a cheering crowd at Gaza International Airport, Abbas said Israel's departure was bringing ''historic days of joy" to the Palestinians.
In his first major speech since Israel began pulling out Monday, he promised that the closed airport, whose runways were destroyed by Israel in 2000, would again become a gateway for Palestinians -- though that will require Israel's blessing.
Abbas also pledged that the Palestinian Authority would rebuild homes demolished during the past five years of conflict. He promised to reserve 5 percent of government jobs for the disabled, mainly the war-wounded.
He told the crowd that Israel was leaving Gaza because of Palestinian ''sacrifices" and ''patience," and he promised that the withdrawal would lead to further pullouts from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Earlier, hundreds of Palestinians from the town of Rafah offered prayers of thanks in sandy, open ground within sight of two deserted settlements, celebrating the coming return of land -- captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- that became home to 8,500 Jewish settlers.
''We won, so we came to thank God for our victory," said Abdel Raouf Barbar, an official of Abbas's Fatah party. With parliamentary elections scheduled in January, the party is competing with the Islamic group Hamas to claim credit for the Israeli withdrawal.
Yesterday two Hamas militants were wounded when an explosive device they were carrying blew up before they could plant it near the evacuated Kfar Darom settlement, Palestinian officials said.
The extent of their injuries was unknown, said the security officials, who cannot be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
The militants apparently wanted to target Israeli troops still guarding the emptied settlement to bolster Hamas's contentions of having driven the Israelis from Gaza.
Meanwhile, a bulldozer crushed flimsy caravan homes in the first demolition of an abandoned Jewish settlement, and the army prepared to complete the anguishing task of uprooting the last Israelis from Gaza next week before moving on to evacuations in parts of the West Bank.
The first demolition was at Kerem Atzmona, an illegal outpost within view of the Mediterranean. The massive shovel of a yellow excavator flattened about 20 homes with just a few blows to each. In Gadid, the 17th of Gaza's 21 settlements to be evacuated, protesters set up a flaming barricade at the gate before the army arrived shortly after dawn. They hurled stones and paint-filled light bulbs at troops. A military bulldozer cleared the burning debris, and forces quickly fanned through the settlement.
The last four settlements were expected to be emptied by Tuesday.
Since Wednesday when the forced evictions began, security forces detained nearly 950 protesters. Yesterday, 245 were still in jail in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, police said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the settlers' former patron who became the architect of the Gaza pullout, said the violence infuriated him.
Sharon had said he was reduced to tears watching images of settlers losing their homes. But after seeing what happened at Kfar Darom, he told the Haaretz daily ''my mood altered and the pain turned to rage."