The Jewish settlement and watchtower went up in flames as the delighted crowd looked on. It was only a cardboard effigy, but it was a portent of long-awaited destruction soon to befall the hated originals.

Similar scenes of delight took place across Gaza yesterday, and they were all mingled with a “pinch-me” confounding of long-ingrained mistrust that Ariel Sharon’s deed would match Ariel Sharon’s word.

By way of television screens, internet websites and bulletin boards, the Arab world reacted with ill-disguised glee as Israeli soldiers confronted perhaps the most hated people in the Middle East – Israel’s Jewish settlers.

“Yes, but will he really do it?” has for months been the first question on the lips of sceptical Arabs from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. Raised on a ceaseless official diet of Israel vilification – and Sharon demonisation in particular – the universal Arab suspicion has been that disengagement would be another Zionist conspiracy, a ploy or a subterfuge never to materialise.

But as al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and Palestinian television filled their screens with olive-uniformed Israeli soldiers presenting eviction notices to the reviled mustawtinin [settlers], convoys of yellow minibuses flowed on to the streets of the nearest Gaza town, Khan Younis, with horns honking and Palestinian flags flying.

In homes, families gathered in front of television sets and switched from one channel to another. Mothers laid out new clothes for children to wear and prepared special mambo cookies usually served on Eid festivals.

Hamas, the extremist group, was foremost in the charge to claim victory as mosques opened for special midnight prayers. “May God bless those who touch weapons,” Younis al-Astal, the Hamas leader, said as he castigated the Palestinian Authority for negotiating with the Israeli Government. “The blood of martyrs has led to liberation,” a Hamas banner read. Hamas internet supporters were also in full swing. One of the group’s websites carried bizarre yellow Islamist “smileys” giving the thumbs up and praying to Allah. On the Palestinian Dialogue Forum, Bilal 2 – a “Hamasnik activist” – called on the Palestinian Authority to erect on the site of the demolished settlements a plaque to each militant who died attacking them.

Determined to wrest the triumph from the men of violence, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, emphasised his message, that Gaza must be the start, not the end. He said:

“The Israeli withdrawal is an important and historic step that shouldn’t only happen in Gaza but also the West Bank and the rest of the land reaching to the 1949 borders.”

Al-Jazeera carried non-stop coverage of Israeli settlers weeping and waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, al- Arabiya took a human-interest approach, ushering Palestinian children into a minibus and driving them through checkpoints that no longer exist, asking: “How do you feel now you will be able to sleep with no more shelling?” A Palestinian satellite channel found a vantage point from which to film the action, and its commentator, possibly the most excited person in Khan Younis, went so far as to praise the Israeli soldiers for their professionalism. Another Palestinian television channel took congratulatory telephone calls from all over the Arab world.

This piece appeared in The Times of London on August 16th, 2005