oPt

Feature: Gaza refugees count minutes at Israeli gateway to new life

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Ofira Koopmans, dpa

Gaza City_(dpa) _ For the past five days, Ahmed, a Fatah security officer, has been waiting with his family at the Erez border crossing between northern Gaza and Israel, dreaming of a new life in the West Bank.

Along with him, some 250 other Palestinians, many of them Fatah members with their wives and children, have been squatting at the crossing point, stranded between Israeli soldiers who are keeping it almost hermetically closed and gunmen of Hamas' Executive Force, who have installed a checkpoint some 200 metres away.

"No one is helping us to get out," he says angrily, noting his wife, two children, mother and two brothers are with him.

Ahmed, who declined to give his last name, says he is a Fatah militant, as well as an officer in Mahmoud Abbas' Presidential Guard, and fears for his life if he returns to Gaza City.

"I believe it is Israel's responsibility to let us out and get to the West Bank," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa on the telephone. "We want to go to the West Bank. It's a Palestinian territory. We have no plans to stay in Israel," he assures.

Israel, however, says it is concerned that militants previously involved in the firing of rockets against it, or others looking for a an opportunity to enter the Jewish state and launch a suicide bombing, may be among the refugees. It says it has difficulties running security checks on those asking for entry permits, because the partners it would coordinate with are no longer present in a Gaza Strip now under the sole control of Hamas.

So far, Israel has allowed through only a small number of individuals on a "case by case" basis, including five Palestinians late Tuesday who were injured in infighting in Gaza in recent days. Two were wounded when Palestinian militants with suspected links to Hamas attacked the border crossing the previous night, throwing at least one hand-grenade and spraying machine-gun fire at the Israeli soldiers over the heads of the waiting refugees.

A 17-year-old leukemia patient was also granted permission Wednesday to travel to a Tel Aviv hospital for urgent treatment. He was to be transported by ambulance through the crossing. Physicians for Human Rights says some two dozen other patients however also require life-saving treatment outside the Gaza Strip.

Ahmed and other members of Fatah security organizations do not seem to believe assurances given by Hamas that it will grant amnesty to all who hand in their weapons. Their fears have been fuelled by gruesome images of a senior Fatah officer who was dragged away by an angry Hamas crowd that pumped dozens of bullets into his body in front of television cameras after he tried to run over a roadblock and shot dead a Hamas militant guarding it last Thursday.

The Israeli troops at the terminal fire in the air from time to time to keep people at a distance, he says.

The vast majority of the 40,000 Fatah security officials based in Gaza are still present in the Strip. They have removed their uniforms and many stay indoors for fear of being arrested by Hamas.

Members of Hamas' Executive Force have over the past days, and particularly Tuesday night, raided the homes of dozens of them, collecting their weapons and carrying out thorough searches.

At the checkpoint erected outside Erez, Hamas gunmen stop each car and check the papers of their passengers.

"If they found a wanted Fatah member, they take him, but they leave the people who are believed to be ordinary civilians," says Ibrahim Abu Tahoun, a taxi driver who works in the area.

In their bid to convince people that they are able to impose law and order, Hamas forces have succeeded in freeing an engineer held captive for more than a year by a Bedouin clan over a business dispute.

Trying to prove the same point, Hamas has also stepped up efforts to release BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who on Wednesday spent his 100th day in captivity by a militant group calling itself the Army of Islam. Despite several promises of a pending breakthrough, he is still being held.

Meanwhile in Gaza City, people have returned to the streets after a week of bloody clashes that left, according to a health ministry estimate, some 130 people dead.

But despite life seemingly getting back to normal after the fighting has died down, an unmistakable tension lingers. The only gunmen to be seen in the streets belong to Hamas and the prices of basic food products have risen steeply.

People were queueing up at petrol stations, bakeries and supermarkets, fearing stocks of such essentials as rice, flour and sugar may run out with Gaza's border crossings shut, save for limited humanitarian aid supplied by international organizations in coordination with Israel.

It seems we are going down the abyss," sighs taxi driver Abu Tahoun. dpa str ok bve

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