- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

RAFAH BORDER CROSSING, Gaza Strip — Israel reopened the only crossing for Palestinians between the Gaza Strip and Egypt after a nearly three-week closure, but the army would not say yesterday whether it found evidence of a purported plot by militants to blow up the border terminal.

About 1,400 Palestinians crossed into Gaza after the Rafah terminal was reopened, a Palestinian official said. The nearly three-week closure came during the peak summer season, and hundreds of stranded travelers slept on the ground near the desert post — the only crossing for Palestinian travelers in and out of Gaza.

Israel shut down the terminal July 18, saying it had intelligence information that Palestinian militants had dug a tunnel under the crossing or a nearby Israeli army outpost and planned to blow it up. Militants have dug tunnels in the past to carry out attacks, including a deadly explosion at a Gaza army base this year.

Soldiers searched the area during the closure, but the military refused to say yesterday whether anything suspicious was found. The Ha’aretz newspaper reported on its Web site that U.S. pressure forced Israel to reopen the crossing.

While the terminal was closed, some 1,500 Palestinians waited nearby and 3,000 others stayed with relatives in Egypt or at hotels, Salim Abu Safia, the Palestinian director of the Gaza crossing, said.

About 1,400 people crossed yesterday, and two more days were needed to allow those who had been stranded to cross back, Mr. Abu Safia said.

Israel had offered to open an alternate crossing, but Egypt and the Palestinian Authority rejected that proposal as a violation of existing border agreements.

For many, yesterday’s crossing was an emotional one, ending an ordeal that left them dependent on aid from charity organizations. Earlier this week, Egypt warned of an impending humanitarian crisis.

With tears streaming down her face, Nihad Abu Jazar, 22, a Cairo University student, ran into the arms of waiting relatives.

The travelers spent the first week sleeping on the ground, Miss Abu Jazar said. Later, Egyptians authorities and aid groups brought basic supplies, including mattresses.

Elsewhere in Gaza, a Palestinian trying to plant a bomb near an Israeli settlement was killed by Israeli army fire yesterday, the army said. The 18-year-old was a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group, Palestinian officials said.

Also in Gaza, 5,000 Palestinians — including some 100 armed men — marched in an Islamic Jihad rally to honor a militant killed in an Israeli airstrike earlier in the week. The marchers burned Israeli and American flags and a model of an Israeli settlement.

In the West Bank, soldiers carrying out an arrest raid in the village of Salfit near Nablus shot and killed one Palestinian militant and arrested another as they tried to flee, the army said. Palestinian officials identified the dead man as Mohammed Balasmeh, 23, from the militant Hamas group.

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