GAZA CITY: Palestinians stranded for weeks at the Egyptian border after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip started trickling back home, but most are still being turned away.
More than 100 made the circuitous route Sunday northward to the Nitzana crossing between Egypt and Israel, boarding Israeli buses and making their way back south to Gaza.
Another 500 were expected to follow the same route on Monday, but the other 5,000 waiting to cross were told to head the other direction – Cairo – and apply for permission to return home.
Also Sunday, Israel reversed decades of opposition and endorsed sale of US arms to Saudi Arabia, because the aim is to counter Iran, and Israel will receive a significant increase in US military assistance.
The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip last month triggered the closure of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which was run by Palestinian security with European supervision and Israeli security in the background – stranding about 6,000 Palestinians on the Egyptian side.
During the violence, the European monitors fled and Hamas militiamen took control of the terminal. Rafah is the only crossing from Gaza that does not go through Israel.
The first three Palestinians crossed into Gaza through the Erez checkpoint late Sunday afternoon. They were greeted with kisses and hugs from relatives, who rushed them away from the scene in cars.
Both Israel and Egypt have opposed reopening the crossing as long as Hamas remains in charge there.
After weeks of negotiations, agreement was reached to repatriate the Palestinians through the Nitzana crossing in desert between Israel and Egypt. In the desert heat of about 40 degrees Celsius, they walked into Israel and boarded two Israeli buses for the trip to Erez.
A tank flanked by bulldozers guarded the crossing on the Israeli side as the Palestinians arrived. At one point, Israeli forces fired in the air to keep Palestinian journalists and relatives away from the crossing, setting up a buffer zone for the transfer. No one was hurt.
Ahmed Ihlel, 40, was returning to his home town of Rafah, next to the Egyptian border, after medical treatment in Egypt. It s a tragedy that I used to live five minutes away from the Rafah crossing, and now we drove around the planet just to get home, he said.
Hamas denounced the arrangement, saying it gave Israel a veto on who could enter Gaza. Rafah s continued closure also means Hamas officials will find it more difficult to sneak funds into the Gaza Strip.
Hani Jabbour, a Palestinian security coordinator stationed on the Egyptian side of Rafah, said Saturday that those left stranded have been asked to return to Cairo to register with the Palestinian embassy there. The embassy will pass the names of those registered to the Israelis for approval, he added.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit said getting the first group across was a first positive step.
Now that things have calmed down in the Gaza Strip, I think it is quite right to give them a possibility to go back to Gaza to their homes and I hope that this step will create some kind of quietness in the Gaza Strip, he said.
In another development Sunday, Israel reversed a decades-long policy and said it would back a US plan to supply Saudi Arabia with advanced weapons. The reason for the reversal – the buildup is meant to counter Iran, seen by both the US and Israel as a dangerous enemy that is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.
Sweetening the deal for Israel is a US pledge to increase annual military aid to Israel by 25 percent, from $2.4 billion at present to $3 billion a year, guaranteed for 10 years, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US officials said.
We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states and there is a need for a united front between the US and us regarding Iran, Olmert told the weekly Sunday Cabinet meeting.
In the past, Israel has opposed arming Saudi Arabia out of concern that the weapons could be used against Israel or transferred to hostile elements. Hardline Israeli lawmaker Yuval Steinitz warned that these concerns are still valid.
I can understand the need to support moderate states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but on the other hand we have to remember that governments can be toppled, as in Iran, Steinitz told The Associated Press.
Israel s southern tip is about 15 km from Saudi Arabia across the Gulf of Aqaba.Associated Press