On Gaza's borders, anxiety mounts

Israel relaxed travel restrictions Wednesday, allowing a few seriously ill Palestinians and all foreign nationals to leave Gaza.

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After five days caught between Hamas and Israel on Gaza's northern border, Nader's ordeal was over.

With a bandage and brace supporting his arm wounded in a shootout Monday evening, the son of a Fatah intelligence officer sat in the orthopedic ward at Ashkelon's Barzilay hospital talking to friends and family on a mobile phone.

As uncertainty and degradation grew in the coastal strip following last week's takeover by Hamas, the militant Islamic resistance movement, hundreds of Gazans rushed to flee. Nader, who declined to give his surname, was among the handful allowed into Israel Wednesday.

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Along with several other wounded and ill Palestinians and all foreign nationals living in Gaza, he was allowed to cross over the Erez crossing. But he still doesn't know if he will get permission to seek asylum in the West Bank or whether Israel will force him to return to Gaza, where he is convinced he will be harmed by Hamas militants.

"If you are not Hamas, you are the enemy," he says.

Palestinians along the border who have family members in Gaza reported that Hamas operatives were said to be patrolling neighborhoods with megaphones, and computerized lists demanding Fatah members turn themselves in along with their weapons. Families with relatives that fled to the West Bank, where Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has consolidated control, were threatened with violence, they said.

Israeli security officials have been reluctant let the refugees through, arguing that they could pose a security risk and insisting that Hamas was not harming those who chose to turn back."These people are not refugees. These people have houses in Gaza and they have a place to return to," says Shady Yassin, a spokesman for the Israeli liaison office at the Gaza border. "There are women and children, but there are also extremists, and it's difficult to know who they are."

The threat of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is increased pressure on Israel to open the Karni crossing, the main commercial junction, to humanitarian aid. The United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, "the reopening of Karni crossing is vital to prevent general food shortages in two to four weeks."

On the Israeli side of the Erez crossing Wednesday, two buses pulled away carrying about 90 Ukrainian nationals – most of them children – stranded in Gaza for days because of the backup at the crossing. A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Israel said there were an additional 100 Russians poised to cross, but Israeli officials had held up passage of males because of their Palestinian nationality.

Anxiety is also growing on the border between Gaza and Egypt that is known for the underground tunnels that ferry supplies to weapons. Egypt has been trying to crack down on the smuggling tunnels and is under pressure from Israel, which says weapons smuggled through them from Egypt are arming militants in Gaza.

At an Egyptian police checkpoint on the road to the border, an officer who did not give his name, voiced similar concerns.

"The Palestinians cause all the problems here. We are worried about [Hamas] because they are the reason of all the problems between the Palestinians now and all the problems are coming here. Especially we don't like the Hamas movement."

But Ibrahim Awad was more sympathetic to the Islamic movement. Mr. Awad has two small shops next to the Salahideen border crossing, a long-closed link with the Gaza Strip. He says that a bystander near the border was injured by a bullet from a Hamas militant this week.

"Just a day ago someone was just sitting here, and he was shot, but it wasn't on purpose," says Awad. "Anything that happens there, it affects here. Here and there is one country. It affects work and trade, also safety, everything."

Residents here feel strong ties with the Palestinians living just a few hundred yards away and many say they support Hamas in its fight with Fatah for control of the Palestinian territories.

Abdel Razaq Abdel Hamid grew up in a house facing the border with Gaza. From his roof he can see young Palestinians trying to clamor across the border and buildings in Gaza pocked marked from bombs he says were dropped by Israel.

"Hamas and only Hamas. They are the only ones who can bring security," he says when asked which Palestinian faction he supports. His brother next to him on his rooftop, overlooking the border, nods. "It's just one family between Egypt and Palestine."

Border security since Hamas won control of Gaza has rested mainly with the Egyptians. Fatah border guards fled to Egypt when Hamas won control of Gaza and Hamas has turned up at the border only sporadically so far, local residents say, and have been strafed by Israeli planes.

That has led to some 100 young Palestinian men slipping across to Egypt in the past few days, Awad, Mr. Hamid, and other local residents say.

Three border crossing point connect Egypt and Gaza. Only Rafah still opens sporadically and is heavily guarded.

The other two crossings closed a few years ago and aren't as heavily guarded. The one by Awad's shops was guarded by a single stick-wielding Egyptian soldier on a recent afternoon.

A guard tower and a half dozen soldiers milling about were the only visible human deterrent to illegal crossings from Gaza for the several kilometers of border within in view of the old crossing.

Egyptians living along this border said Palestinians blow holes through the massive metal wall that marks the Gaza Strip's border. Then they scramble across a few hundred yards of no man's land and use wire cutters to breach a fence topped with barbed wired that demarcates Egyptian territory.

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