Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Hundreds transit to Gaza after Israel reopens crossing


Some 1,400 Palestinians crossed into Gaza on Friday after Israel reopened a border terminal with Egypt, ending a three-week closure that had left hundreds of stranded travelers sleeping on the ground near the desert post.

The Rafah terminal is the only crossing for Palestinian travelers in and out of Gaza, and the closure came during the peak summer season.

Also, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned of increased threats against Sharon.

"There has been a sharp increase in the level of threats against the prime minister," said Dov Weisglass, Sharon's bureau chief, in an interview with Israel's Channel 2 TV -- excerpts of which were aired on Friday.

Weisglass did not name the source of the threats, but in recent weeks security officials have warned that Sharon could be a target of right-wing extremists who oppose his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

In 1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. Palestinian militants have also vowed to strike at Israeli leaders to avenge Israel's killing of militant leaders.

Israel shut down the Rafah terminal July 18, saying it had intelligence information that Palestinian militants had dug a tunnel under the crossing or a nearby Israeli army outpost and were planning to blow it up. Militants have dug tunnels in the past to carry out attacks, including a deadly explosion at a Gaza army base this year.

Soldiers searched the area during the closure, but the military refused to say on Friday if anything suspicious was found.

During the closure, some 1,500 Palestinians waited near the terminal, while some 3,000 others stayed with relatives in Egypt or at hotels, said Salim Abu Safia, the Palestinian director of the Gaza crossing.

According to Abu Safia, 1,400 people managed to cross Friday.

For many, the crossing was an emotional moment, bringing an end to an ordeal that saw them dependent on aid from charity organizations. Earlier in the week, Egypt warned of an impending humanitarian crisis.

With tears streaming down her face, Nihad Abu Jazar, 22, a third-year student at Cairo University, ran into the arms of her waiting relatives.

The travelers had spent the first week sleeping on the ground, Abu Jazar said. Later, Egyptians authorities and aid groups brought basic supplies, including mattresses. But there were not enough toilets, and people were forced to stand for hours waiting to use the bathroom.

She said she had thought about returning to Cairo. "But every time I convinced myself that they might open any time and to be honest I don't have enough money. My father is unemployed," Abu Jazar said.

Israel had offered to open an alternate crossing, but Egypt and the Palestinian Authority rejected the proposal as a violation of existing border agreements.

The closure disrupted the travel plans of thousands of Palestinians. TheWeb site of the Israeli daily Haaretz said the crossing was reopened under US pressure.

Abu Safia said two more days were needed to allow all those who had been stranded to cross back.

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