EL-ARISH, Egypt, (AP) – More than 100 Palestinians began their trip home to the Gaza Strip on Sunday, almost two months after Hamas’ takeover of the seaside strip triggered the closure of the border with Egypt.
The journey began Sunday morning when some 1,000 Palestinians gathered in a stadium in el-Arish, where authorities read the names of 105 people who had been approved by Israel to return to Gaza.
The Palestinians boarded buses outside the stadium that headed south toward the rarely-used Al-Oja cargo crossing, where they will cross into Israel and then into northern Gaza through the Erez crossing.
Hani Jabbour, a Palestinian security coordinator stationed on the Egyptian side of Rafah, said Saturday that Israel had approved a list of 627 Palestinians who would be allowed to return, a portion of the some 6,000 who have been living in harsh desert conditions in the Egyptian border town of Rafah. The people remaining on the list after Sunday’s journey will head out the next day, and similar transfers are expected in the future, he added.
The Palestinians have been unable to return because the Rafah border terminal between Egypt and Gaza was closed on June 9, the start of factional fighting in which Hamas routed rival Fatah forces and took control of the Gaza Strip. That crossing was jointly controlled by Egypt, Israel, the Palestinians, and overseen by European monitors.
Israel and Egypt have rejected Hamas demands since its bloody takeover to have partial control of the terminal.
Hamas has criticized the plan to transfer the stranded Palestinians through the Al-Oja and Erez crossings, saying it increases Israel’s control over Gaza. Hamas officials and supporters would presumably not be allowed to enter through Israel.
Hamas had opposed a similar idea in the past, by which the stranded Palestinians would have crossed through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom passage into the Gaza Strip.
The remaining Palestinians stranded in Rafah have been asked to return to Cairo to register with the Palestinian embassy there, according to Jabbour. The embassy will transfer lists of those registered to the Israelis for approval, he added.
International aid groups have repeatedly called for the plight of the stranded Palestinians to be speedily resolved. Some, like Rafik Ahmed Salman, whose name was not on Sunday’s list, have been stranded in Rafah for more than two months because the crossing was intermittently closed even before Hamas took control of Gaza.
“I am disappointed because I have been here for 77 days with some sick people from my family, but I hope that I will be able to cross tomorrow,” said Salman. “This is again another tragedy of the Palestinian people.”