EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel’s new defense minister ordered the army on Wednesday to allow into Israel any of the hundreds of Gazans holed up at a fetid crossing who might desperately need medical treatment. A teenager with leukemia was on his way through shortly after, the military said.
In related news, Israel’s Supreme Court was hearing a petition Wednesday by a human rights group, demanding that Israeli authorities offer immediate medical treatment to 26 critically ill Palestinians hospitalized in Gaza.
About 200 Gazans, petrified by the chaos in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip, have been camped out for six days in a tunnel on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing with Israel, pleading with Israeli authorities to grant them safe passage to the West Bank.
Hamas seized control of Gaza last week after vanquishing security forces allied with the rival Fatah faction, leaving many Gazans petrified that chaos and further violence will ensue. Some in the tunnel fear their lives are in danger because of their Fatah loyalties; others seek a better life than volatile Gaza can offer.
Among their number are people wounded in gunbattles between the rival factions.
With no sanitary facilities at the tunnel, the stench of urine and sweat has permeated the air. Food and water were in short supply as women, children and young men sat waiting on mats or concrete. The situation at the crossing was expected to be one of the first issues Defense Minister Ehud Barak would tackle after he took over the job on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, Barak instructed officials to let in “humanitarian cases” at the crossing.
No numbers were specified, and specific guidelines for determining urgency were not released. But shortly after the order was issued, a 17-year-old boy with leukemia was on his way through the passage, said Shadi Yassin, a military liaison official.
On Tuesday, Israel allowed in two Palestinians wounded in a shootout at the terminal the previous day. Three other people hospitalized in Gaza in the course of Hamas-Fatah infighting last week also were allowed to pass. Hamas’ takeover of Gaza led Israel to seal its borders.
Israel, which has sophisticated weapons screening equipment in place at Erez, says it is letting through only the staff of international organizations, people with special permission and humanitarian cases. Military officials ssay they don’t think all of the people in the tunnel are in danger. But the humanitarian cases are being processed dangerously slow, the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights contended in a petition before the Israeli Supreme Court.
Ran Yaron, a doctor with the group, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the lives of 15 of the patients were in danger and the necessary treatment was not available in the Gaza Strip. Among them was an 18-year-old woman with lupus, who was unconcious and on life support. Others, including at least two children, were suffering from cancer or other serious diseases.
“Israel has a responsibility since it closed the … crossings,” Yaron said. “It has the responsibility to find a solution for these patients.”
Yassin, the military liason official, said the takeover deprived Israel of its main contact on humanitarian issues, Fatah-allied Palestinian police.
“In the past, we coordinated with Palestinian police,” he said. “Now, we don’t have this contact, and are trying in every way to obtain information from the Red Cross about sick people whose transfer to Israel must be coordinated.”
While Gazans were agitating for humanitarian relief at Israeli crossings, Israeli tanks entered the southern Gaza Strip about 600 meters (yards) before dawn Wednesday, and four people, including at least two militants, were killed in an exchange of fire, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Hamas and the allied Popular Resistance Committees said gunmen fired on troops acting undercover in the village of Karara were discovered by the gunmen who fired at them, prompting the army to send six tanks, two armored personnel carriers and a bulldozer to the area.
The army said the entrance of the troops had been planned, was not a broad operation, and was meant to counter militant activity, including arms smuggling. And in the West Bank, two Palestinian militants were killed early Wednesday after an hourslong shootout with Israeli troops in Kafr Dan, a village near Jenin, residents said. One was a local commander from the Islamic Jihad militant group and the other a local commander from a violent offshoot of Fatah.
Witnesses said about 30 jeeps and a bulldozer entered the village in an arrest raid, and a fierce exchange of fire ensued. The militants were killed and the house in which they were holed up was partly burnt, they said.
The army said armed men opened fire from the house on troops, who shot back, killing two militants. In Washington, meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in his battle with Hamas, calling him a moderate voice and the only true leader of the Palestinian people. “I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him,” Olmert said. Bush called Abbas “the president of all the Palestinians” and “a reasonable voice among the extremists.”
Talking to reporters in Washington, Olmert pledged to free tax money Israel has collected for the Palestinians but has frozen since Hamas took power. He did not give an amount, but the total is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Olmert also said he would act to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank and would also consider releasing Palestinian prisoners and shoring up Abbas’ security forces.