Hundreds of scared Gazans trapped in tunnel
EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip – Trapped by Israeli tanks and Hamas gunmen, hundreds of terrified Palestinians holed up in a stench-filled concrete tunnel at a border crossing Tuesday, desperate to flee the Islamic militants now ruling the Gaza Strip.Israel took in two people hit by Hamas gunfire, 24 hours after they were wounded in an assault on the tunnel, but officials remained steadfast in rejecting pleas to throw open the border. Three people wounded in the Gaza fighting last week also were allowed into Israel.Israeli officials permitted a food shipment into Gaza for the first time since Hamas seized control in five days of fighting with the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That eased concerns about a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished coastal territory.The crowd at the Erez crossing included dozens of Fatah fighters, who Israeli officials feared could destabilize the West Bank, which is separated from Gaza by about 30 miles of Israeli territory. Officials said most of those seeking to cross were not in danger.As the standoff stretched on, the scene inside the 900-foot-long tunnel grew increasingly desperate.Women, children and young men sat between two high concrete walls forming a corridor about 30 feet across, looking tired and grimy. Suitcases and trash were strewn about. Some people sat on mats, others on bare asphalt, including several men with bloody bandages on their legs.A breeze barely stirred in the passage, which is lighted on the Israeli side. The tunnel has no toilets, and reeked of urine and sweat.”It’s disgusting. People are using the walls as toilets. The women are suffering,” said one man, refusing to be identified out of fear for his safety. He said people were on edge and fighting over food.In one instance, a crowd attacked a food cart, “and only the strong got the food,” the man said. Later, Israel sent in five cartons of food, he said. “There was order because they made everybody sit down,” he said.The man said some in the tunnel feared Hamas members had infiltrated the crowd to spy on them.Late Monday, gunmen from a small Hamas-allied group, disguised as civilians, pulled guns and grenades out of their luggage and killed the nephew of a notorious Fatah militia leader who had been slain by a Hamas mob last week, witnesses said. Fifteen people were wounded.Nearly 24 hours after the attack in the tunnel, Israel allowed in two of the wounded Tuesday, army and medical officials said. Three other Gazans wounded last week also were let in. The army did not identify the wounded, who were taken to Israeli hospitals.An Israeli activist group, Physicians for Human Rights, said Israel’s Supreme Court scheduled a hearing Wednesday to hear its petition seeking to force Israeli authorities to offer immediate medical treatment to anyone needing it at Erez.To maintain order at the crossing, Israeli armored vehicles rolled up to the Palestinian side Tuesday, chasing away cars parked next to the tunnel. One tank blocked people from leaving or entering the tunnel.The vehicles pulled back later, the military said, but people still were not being allowed to enter Israel.Witnesses estimated 600 people were huddled in the long concrete passage that leads to the Israeli side of the crossing. About 100 were believed to be fleeing Fatah security men, with the others civilians seeking a better life in the West Bank.Israel, which has sophisticated weapons screening equipment at Erez, said it was letting only the staff of international organizations, people with special permission and humanitarian cases to cross.”We don’t think that all of them there are threatened,” Nir Peres, a military liaison officer, told Israel Radio.Israel let about 50 senior Fatah officials and their families cross to the West Bank from Gaza over the weekend, citing threats to their safety. Some 200 other Fatah officials are in Egypt, trying to reach the West Bank via Jordan, Fatah officials said.Hamas declared a general amnesty for Fatah fighters shortly after its victory in Gaza, but frightened civilians and security officers have not been reassured. Hamas checkpoints have been set up on the road to Erez to arrest fighters trying to leave.Abu Mustafa, a Fatah fighter seeking to leave through Erez, feared he is a marked man. “They forgave people before and later killed them. There’s no way we’ll go back,” he said.A Fatah leader in the West Bank, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter, said Abbas, the Palestinian president, did not want Gazans streaming out of the coastal strip and leaving it an undiluted Hamas stronghold.Hamas’ victory has left the Palestinians with two rival governments – Abbas’ Western-backed administration in the West Bank and the Hamas rulers of Gaza. The international community has embraced Abbas, while the Islamic militant Hamas has been shunned.In Washington, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to bolster Abbas 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 amongst 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.Egypt’s government moved its embassy to the Palestinian Authority from Gaza to the West Bank town of Ramallah on Tuesday in a show of recognition for Abbas, while Arab League chief Amr Moussa insisted Abbas is the authority “for every Palestinian, not just the West Bank.”Facing growing international isolation, Hamas called for a “national dialogue” with its Fatah foes.”We are still prepared for a brotherly, serious and responsible national dialogue,” Khalil al-Haya, a Hamas lawmaker, told reporters.But in the West Bank, Abbas’ spokesman ruled out talks.”Before any dialogue, Hamas must withdraw its armed people from all the places they occupied and give back the power to the legitimate authority,” Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.On Tuesday, Israel let the first food aid shipment enter Gaza since fighting broke out. The U.N. World Food Program, which ordinarily feeds 250,000 of Gaza’s 1.4 million residents, sent in 10 truckloads of food and two trucks with medical supplies.The Israeli military said aid would continue to flow, unless there is Hamas “interference.”The International Red Cross said medicine and medical supplies were urgently needed in Gaza, where it said hundreds were hospitalized with injuries from last week’s fighting.—Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Gaza City and Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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