Palestinians desperate to return to Gaza

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RAFAH, Egypt (AP) – Sleeping in the sand and running out of money, thousands of Palestinians have been stranded in Egypt’s desert for more than a month since the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza has been closed.

Conditions in the frontier town were increasingly desperate Friday, with one woman saying she was forced to sell her wedding ring to feed her family. Others complained authorities weren’t even providing blankets or other basic necessities.

The Rafah border terminal has been closed since June 9, the start of the final round of bloody factional fighting between Fatah and Hamas that led to the Islamic group’s takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Egypt said earlier this week it had ruled out opening the border anytime soon, the official MENA news agency reported, a move intended to put pressure on Hamas to resolve its conflict with Fatah.

Egyptian officials are worried a Hamas-ruled Gaza on its borders could lead to terrorist attacks and bolster Egypt’s own banned Islamic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.

But many of the 4,000 Palestinians stuck on the Egyptian side of the border are having trouble finding food and shelter – shortages they blame on local authorities who are indifferent to their plight. A large number can’t afford lodging and instead are sleeping in mosques and under trees.

Some 40 Palestinians protested Friday in Rafah, demanding food, water, tents, blankets and basic medical treatment.

Samera Abu Khamas, who crossed into Egypt because her young son needed eye surgery, said she had run out of money, even after selling all her jewelry, including her wedding ring.

“I have only my clothes left,” she said through tears. “Shall I sell them to get some food?”

Dr. Saber Ibrahim of the Egyptian Physicians Syndicate estimated 29 Palestinians had died in Rafah in the past month. He said his organization, which has led relief efforts, has asked local officials to provide better medical facilities for the Palestinians, but has gotten no response.

Health conditions are a serious concern because many of the Palestinians stranded in Rafah came to Egypt for medical treatment.

Despite growing complaints against the local government, Rafah’s mayor, Gen. Khairi Awad, insisted he was willing to provide assistance.

“I am ready to pay money for those who don’t have money to pay their rent,” he said. “I am ready to provide food and medicine to those people who need them.”

But his promises contrasted with the words of stranded Palestinians such as Nasser al-Najar, who denied receiving any aid.

“They are liars. They haven’t provided us with any help,” he said. “I have been sleeping on the sand and have been begging them for a blanket. Nobody has listened.”

Instead, Palestinians have had to rely on the kindness of residents.

Atef Abu Jarrad, an Egyptian Bedouin from the Rafah area, said he has been hosting dozens of Palestinians in a ramshackle bamboo hut outside his house.

“I am trying to be a true Arab, but of course I can’t provide facilities, food and water for all these people,” he said. “This is the government’s job. I don’t know why they don’t do it.”

Israel has proposed rerouting the stranded Palestinians through the Kerem Shalom crossing that it controls, near the meeting point of Gaza, Egypt and Israel. Egypt has supported the idea, but Hamas rejected it, saying the travelers must be allowed to return through Rafah, which is not controlled by Israel.

The Palestinians won control of the Rafah terminal in 2005, following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Many fear accepting Kerem Shalom as an alternative crossing will place the Palestinian movement under Israel’s direct control again and make it increasingly unlikely Rafah will reopen.

Militant factions also fear that if Israel takes direct control of Palestinian movement through the Kerem Shalom crossing, their members will not be able to pass freely into neighboring Egypt.

Abu Adhidha, a Hamas activist stuck in Rafah, said he was sure Israel would arrest him if he tried to use Kerem Shalom.

“We have always dreamed of having a free access to and from Gaza,” he said. “How can we now surrender ourselves to the Israelis?”

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