– Knight Ridder Newspapers

RAFAH CROSSING, Gaza Strip – Physically and emotionally, these travelers were drained. Sweat-soaked shirts clung to sunburned skin. Suitcases brimmed with dirty laundry that had seen service more than one too many times.

The busload of travelers had been stranded for three weeks in the Egyptian desert after Israel closed this border checkpoint July 19, citing security concerns. When the Israelis finally reopened the crossing Friday, these wilted Palestinians fell into the arms of anxious relatives and said they could not be happier to be home.

Sisters Saher and Summer Dawwas, draped head to toe in black abayas, hugged joyfully. Saher had spent the last 20 days in a sun-baked tent on the Egyptian side of the border, where she and her father, Khalil, were marooned with thousands of Palestinians, many of whom had gone to Egypt for medical treatment.

Saher and Khalil Dawwas were traveling from the United Arab Emirates, via Cairo and Rafah, to the Gaza Strip, to attend Summer’s wedding, which will be Monday.

“We were the lucky ones,” Khalil Dawwas said. He and his daughter were on the first bus to cross Friday because the people ahead of them on the growing list of Palestinians in transit had given up and gone back to Cairo and the nearby Egyptian town of El-Arish, he said.

Egyptian officials estimate that 2,000 people were stranded and had been living in tents and sleeping on mattresses inside the crossing’s small terminal building. They were eating canned food and occasional hot meals provided by charities, and standing in long lines to use makeshift toilets and emergency showers set up by the Egyptian Red Crescent. It was not clear how many people were able to cross into Gaza on Friday.

As many as 6,000 more may be staying in homes and hotels in the surrounding northern Sinai area waiting to cross, said Walid Saleh, director of Palestinian Preventive Security for the Gaza district that includes the Rafah crossing.

Israel closed the crossing last month, saying it had information about a possible attack by Palestinians tunneling under the crossing and planning to blow it up – a tactic used in a recent attack.

During the closure, Israeli troops, aided by sophisticated monitoring equipment, searched the area but did not report finding a tunnel under the terminal.

Israel had offered to open an alternate crossing that would have required the Palestinians to come through an Israeli settlement area and then be bused into the Palestinian part of the strip, but the Palestinian Authority rejected the offer on the ground that it violated existing border agreements.

“We would have been able to accommodate the normal daily number of people,” Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, told The Associated Press on Friday. “The Palestinian Authority refused to cooperate with us.”

Salim Abu Safia, the Palestinian director of the Gaza crossing, said Israel’s offer came on the seventh day of closure, as 4,500 Palestinians were waiting on the Egyptian side. He said Israel was willing to let only about 150 people pass per day, and that would have been insufficient.

Still unsettled is the fate of several thousand more people, including Palestinian nationals with foreign citizenship, who are trapped inside Gaza and waiting to leave through Rafah Crossing.

For the moment, the flow of people is one-way only, from Egypt to Gaza, in order to ease overcrowding in the makeshift tent city, where several women have reportedly miscarried, and at least one baby was born.

Travelers may be permitted to exit Gaza via Rafah on Tuesday, but the details are still unclear.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Nagi Latefa, 39, an Allentown, Pa., electrical engineer; his wife, Nisreen, 29; and their daughters, Zeinah, 4, and Sumar, 2, are among the trapped.

The couple, both American citizens, were born in the Gaza village of Abasan e-Saghir. Nagi moved to the United States 20 years ago to attend Temple and Villanova Universities. He married Nisreen five years ago.

They arrived in the strip to visit their families June 27 and were scheduled to return to the United States through Cairo on July 25.

Now, almost two weeks later, they are stuck amid rising frustration. The medication Sumar takes for a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia is running low. The stress of living out of suitcases is grinding them down.

“Israel always attaches “security’ to whatever it does,” Nagi said. “They could flatten the whole crossing and rebuild it in a week.”

He has been on the phone every day this week to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Washington office of Sen. Arlen Specter, R., Pa., both of which are trying to help, but so far no solution for his particular case has been worked out.

“The situation, even within the Palestinian Authority, is deteriorating,” he said. “I’m really anxious to get myself and my kids out of here.”

Then, in a lighter vein, he added: “When I came here I was looking forward to eating shwarma and hummus and falafel. Now I can’t wait to get back to a cheesesteak and a big Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I need a vacation from my vacation.”



(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-06-04 1945EDT



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