Egypt lets stranded Palestinians return to Gaza

Egypt abruptly allowed about 100 Palestinians who had been stranded in Egypt since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in mid-June to return home before dawn on Sunday, witnesses said. Most were supporters of the Islamic militant Hamas or gunmen from other factions wanted by Israel, they said.

Israel had opposed the return of the group, and it was not immediately clear why Egypt allowed them to cross into Gaza at this time. There was no advance announcement and Hamas security officials confiscated film from photographers and cameramen alerted to the scene.

There was no comment after the release from Egypt or Hamas. The Israeli army spokesperson’s office has no immediate information and said it would look into the report.

It was not clear what concessions, if any, Hamas made to Egypt to arrange this release.

The Palestinians included a prominent Hamas lawmaker, Mushir al-Masri, and Hamas loyalists sent for training in Muslim countries before the militant Islamic group’s Gaza takeover, witnesses said. They did not speak to journalists at the scene.

The Palestinians did not come through the official Gaza-Egypt border terminal at Rafah, but through a small border crossing Israel had carved out so armoured vehicles could leave and enter Gaza. They walked to a Hamas security location on the Palestinian side of the border, where they boarded minibuses and private Hamas cars that took them home, witnesses said.

Egypt has kept the crossing almost hermetically closed on the ground that European border monitors assigned there under a United States-sponsored agreement left the site after Hamas wrested control of Gaza.

Hamas charges that the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not want Egypt to open the crossing — a major Palestinian gateway — because that would help the Islamic group hold on to power in Gaza.

Palestinian diplomats in Cairo estimate that 2 000 Palestinians remain stuck in Egypt, including university students, people who had sought medical care abroad, and people who had been visiting relatives at the time of the Gaza takeover.

Egypt, in coordination with Israel, has allowed several hundred Palestinians to return, but many more have remained stranded on Egyptian soil, often living in miserable conditions.

Hamas supporters had threatened on several occasions to attack the Rafah crossing to let in stranded Palestinians. Tens of thousands rallied at the Gaza-Egypt border early this month to demand it be reopened, and when several tried to rush the border terminal to enter Egypt, Hamas gunmen opened fire, killing a teenager. – Sapa-AP

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