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Thousands try to leave blockaded Gaza

Thousands of people are anxiously trying to get out of Gaza now that the blockaded territory's gateway to the world has opened just a little.
Palestinians wait for Hamas police officers to check their passports as they wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza on Tuesday.
Palestinians wait for Hamas police officers to check their passports as they wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza on Tuesday.Eyad Baba / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Palestinian who had to delay graduate school in Malaysia and an elderly man forced to put off eye surgery in Egypt are among thousands anxiously trying to get out of Gaza now that the blockaded territory's gateway to the world has opened just a little.

A Hamas-run passenger terminal on the Gaza side of the border was packed on Tuesday with hundreds of Gazans trying to get clearance just to approach the crossing into Egypt. It was a chaotic scene, with stressed passengers arguing with overwhelmed Hamas border officials.

"Move back!" a Hamas official barked at the crowd from a hand-held microphone. Nearby, a black-clad policeman raised his club threateningly to cut short an argument with a middle-aged man.

Many of Gaza's 1.5 million people have been forced to put their lives on hold during the three years the territory's borders were sealed by Israel and Egypt, following the violent takeover by the Islamic militant Hamas.

Glimmer of hope
Now, following last week's deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, there is a glimmer of hope the darkest days may be over. In the wake of the assault that killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, world leaders have demanded the embargo be lifted or loosened.

Egypt's promise to keep the Rafah crossing open every day, rather than just sporadically, marks the first tangible improvement.

But even that gesture comes with many strings attached.

Only those with foreign passports or residency, or people requiring medical treatment or accepted at foreign universities are eligible to cross into Egypt. It's the same restricted group as in the past, though the steady opening of the terminal over the past week has helped reduce a backlog of thousands.

For some in the crowd on Tuesday, it was the second or third attempt in as many days to get out, with much at stake.

Hani Ihlayyel has been stuck in Gaza since returning for a summer visit in 2006 after earning a degree in computer engineering from a college in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

His plan was to return to Malaysia for graduate school, but instead the blockade forced him to remain in Gaza, where he said he wasted four years with odd jobs, including buying and selling computers. Gaza has several colleges and universities, but many areas of study, like medicine and advanced computer technology, are not available.

Ihlayyel tried several times to leave via Rafah in the past, but could never get all the necessary documents together, including an Egyptian security clearance and a spot on the Hamas-controlled waiting list. With Egypt opening Rafah only a few days every month or so, that list swelled to more than 8,000 by the end of May.

3,000 cross into Egypt
By Tuesday, just over 3,000 Gazans had crossed into Egypt, and Ihlayyel felt he might have a chance. He arrived at the Gaza terminal at 6:30 a.m. and waited for his name to be called to receive a ticket for a seat on a bus taking him to the border crossing.

Three hours later, a Hamas official announced over a loudspeaker that no more tickets would be issued for Tuesday because four buses had already crossed and no more would be accepted by Egypt. Those in the terminal, Ihlayyel among them, were now waiting for tickets to cross Wednesday.

As the oldest of six brothers, Ihlayyel said he feels pressure to succeed and that his future depends on getting out of Gaza. He said his nerves are frayed because the stakes are so high and so much can go wrong.

"I am afraid of Hamas, of Egypt, of everything," he said, clutching a plastic envelope with his travel documents. "I'm scared, actually."

Najwa Asmar and her three children failed to cross Tuesday, their second attempt in two days, but were promised they would get on the first bus Wednesday.

"Of course, I'm disappointed. For the last three days, we didn't get any sleep or rest," Asmar said as her teenage son Mohammed loaded their suitcase onto the roof of a taxi for the 45-minute drive back to Gaza City. Asmar hopes to spend the summer with Egyptian relatives she hasn't seen for years.

Nearby, 77-year-old Adnan Mohanna stood in the sun, waiting for word from Egypt that he was cleared to travel.

Frustrated by inability to leave
Hamas border officials had warned him that a local doctor's note saying he required eye surgery wasn't enough to get him across the border. His Egyptian eye surgeon, who operated on him eight years ago, would have to send word to the Egyptian authorities, he was told.

Mohanna and the others were visibly frustrated, but just shrugged when asked whom they blamed for their predicament, apparently fearful a critical word might jinx their chances of getting out of Gaza.

An Egyptian border official said about 500 Gazans, or seven busloads, are to be allowed to leave every day. Senior Hamas officials are banned from traveling, according to Egyptian officials.

Egypt has cooperated with Israel in enforcing the blockade, in part because it has been fighting homegrown Islamic radicals since the 1990s and feared Hamas' militancy could spill into Egyptian territory. However, Egypt's role in maintaining the blockade has hurt its standing in the Muslim and Arab world.

In recent days, Egypt has tried to shift responsibility for the blockade to Israel. Egypt's renewed promise on Monday to keep the Rafah terminal open came as Vice President Joe Biden met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and called for new ways of dealing with Gaza.

Israel to probe flotilla raid
On Tuesday, Israel rebuffed calls led by Turkey for an international inquiry into what caused last week's deadly raid, saying it would conduct its own investigation.

Israel staunchly opposes a complete opening of the Gaza border, fearing that would strengthen Hamas, branded a terror group by the West, and allow the Islamic militants to bring in weapons, including missiles that could hit all over Israel.

However, Israel has suggested it is willing to expand the list of several dozen basic humanitarian items it has permitted into Gaza since 2007, while continuing to ban all exports.

Some in Gaza fear that in the end the international community, led by the U.S., will settle for only cosmetic adjustments.

Iyyad Saraj, a psychiatrist and leading figure among Gaza's independents, said partial solutions, such as a proposal by France to inspect aid ships before they reach Gaza, will only prolong Israeli control of Gaza's gates.

"If there is any kind of courage and leadership and moral standing, now is the moment to end the siege," he said.