The Washington Post
Israel Allows Some Palestinians to Leave Gaza
Military Battles Gunmen In Strip and West Bank
EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip, June 20 — Israel allowed Palestinians with severe health problems and foreign-passport holders to leave Gaza on Wednesday in a flight that reflected the humanitarian challenges that have arisen in the days since Hamas’s violent takeover of the strip.
At the same time, Israeli tanks and troops pushed just inside central Gaza near the area where radical Islamic gunmen ambushed an Israeli border post this month. Israeli military officials said the forces came under fire from Palestinian gunmen.
The fighting Wednesday near the city of Khan Younis killed five Palestinians, including two from the armed Islamic movement Hamas, which controls the government and security services in Gaza after defeating rival Fatah forces last week. Israeli troops in the West Bank killed two more Palestinian gunmen, making the day one of the deadliest in months of conflict between Israel and Islamic groups in the territories.
The chaotic scene at the Erez crossing and the stepped-up Israeli military operations, which included Apache helicopter strikes on sites near Erez that Palestinians used Wednesday to fire at least six rockets into Israel, highlighted the complexities that Israeli and Palestinian officials face in keeping the situation in Gaza from becoming a humanitarian crisis.
Hamas’s quick military conquest has split the Palestinian Authority — a provisional government established 13 years ago under an agreement with Israel — and further divided two territories envisioned as the cornerstones of a future Palestinian state. Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Middle East war. It eventually evacuated Israeli settlements and soldiers from Gaza in the fall of 2005.
After five days of fighting last week that left more than 140 Palestinians in Gaza dead, Hamas is running a parallel government here that is not recognized by Fatah leaders or any foreign countries. The West Bank is governed by a new emergency cabinet appointed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader whose government is backed by the United States and recognized by Israel.
Abbas harshly criticized Hamas in a speech Wednesday, saying that “there was no dialogue with those murderous terrorists.”
Scores of Palestinians remain caught at the Erez crossing, which has been almost entirely destroyed by
looters since Hamas’s takeover. Many of those at the crossing live in the West Bank but have been unable to return home because Israel has kept crossings effectively closed.
“We don’t have anything to do with politics,” said Talal Jabber, 37, an agricultural engineer from the West Bank city of Tulkarm, who traveled to Gaza with Israeli permission as part of a Palestinian government delegation.
The factional fighting that culminated in Hamas’s victory began during Jabber’s visit, and he has lived in growing squalor inside the tunnel crossing for several days. Israeli officials delivered food and water Wednesday to approximately 60 people who would rather wait at the crossing than return to Gaza City.
“I was on a mission here,” Jabber said. “Now I want to go home.”
Israel’s new defense minister, Ehud Barak, ordered the military Wednesday to allow Palestinians suffering from serious illness or wounds from the recent factional fighting to enter Israel for treatment. The decision came as Israel’s high court prepared to hear a petition filed by Israeli human rights groups challenging the crossing closures on behalf of ill Palestinians in Gaza.
The Israeli military said nine Palestinians passed through this crossing Wednesday to seek medical care in Israel. Among them was a 17-year-old youth with leukemia who had been entering Israel regularly for treatment before Hamas took control. Others sustained injuries during recent fighting.
Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Israel’s Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, said a Fatah official from the Health Ministry in Gaza used to serve as the liaison with Israeli authorities for such visits.
“Now,” Dror said, “we don’t know if he is alive or dead.”
In punishing heat, Palestinian Health Ministry ambulances pulled up to the 24-foot-high wall and gun tower at the entrance to the crossing.
Red Cross attendants then wheeled patients 50 yards beyond the military checkpoint to where Israeli ambulances waited. During one transfer, medical workers held a blanket above a gurney bearing what appeared to be a young boy, shading the patient from the sun during a wait.
Barak’s order did not address whether the 100 or so West Bank residents caught in Gaza will be allowed to return to their homes. Israel’s government has likened Gaza to a foreign country in court papers and maintains that it has no legal obligation to allow Palestinians to cross Israeli territory to reach the West Bank.
“We’re not going to leave people in Gaza, especially those who traveled there with our permission,” Dror said.
As U.N. agencies warned of food shortages in Gaza in as little as two weeks unless the crossings open for regular cargo deliveries, Israel sent in truckloads of flour, cooking oil, milk, meat and other basic foodstuffs. A batch of U.N.-sponsored vaccines was part of the shipment.
Israel also began allowing Palestinians holding foreign passports to leave Gaza at the request of their embassies. On Wednesday, about 200 people with Russian and Ukrainian passports, most of them women and children, crossed after an hours-long wait.
Israeli officials said plans were being made to allow scores of Palestinians holding U.S. passports to leave Gaza soon.