Tuesday, June 19, 2007

TEL AVIV — Hundreds of Palestinians stranded at an Israeli border crossing while trying to flee Gaza were caught in the crossfire of a shootout between Israeli soldiers and Hamas gunmen yesterday that left at least one dead and 10 wounded.

The border crisis was just one of several humanitarian challenges facing Palestinians and Israelis after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.

Hospitals are running short on medical supplies, patients with authorization for treatment in medical centers outside Gaza are trapped, and no arrangements are in place for new supplies of food, human rights workers said.

The Palestinians trapped at the Erez Crossing in northern Gaza are thought to be linked to the militias of the routed Fatah party and fear retribution from Islamic militants if they remain in Gaza.

Although the Israeli army said about 150 were caught in the crossing, a television report from Israel’s Channel 2 news estimated up to 700 were trapped.

“Hamas is firing on them. They are preventing them from going to Israel and from coming back to Gaza. There are at least 15 families,” said Ibrahim Habib, director of field workers for Israel’s branch of Physicians for Human Rights.

“If Hamas succeeds in getting close, there could be a massacre. They are very brutal. Whoever is there is already on the blacklist,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli army blamed Hamas gunmen for opening fire on Israeli positions at the crossing.

The spokeswoman acknowledged that some Palestinians had been injured at the crossing, but insisted it was too early to determine who fired the bullets.

In the past week, about 200 Palestinians linked to Fatah security services and political institutions have received permission from Israel to cross out of Gaza en route to the West Bank.

Television footage from inside the Palestinian side of the crossing showed dozens of men, women and children who said they had spent several days there.

“These people are not refugees. These people have houses in Gaza, and they have a place to return to,” said Shadi Yassin of the Israeli liaison to the Gaza Strip. “These people are at the passage, and they are endangering themselves. There are women and children, but there are also are extremists. We don’t want to hold these people.”

Images broadcast on Channel 2 showed chaotic scenes of hysterical adults and children withering in the heat in the no man’s land in between the Israeli border and the Palestinian side of Gaza.

From behind a gate, an Israeli soldier fired shots to the other side of the border as dozens of Gazans hunched down.

“We’re under siege. There’s no food and no water,” cried one woman surrounded by children.

Mr. Habib said the most pressing humanitarian issue is the critical condition of several dozen sick Palestinians who need to travel to Israel or abroad for treatment.

Shifa hospital, Gaza’s main hospital, has been turned into a Hamas military base, and doctors have moved to an emergency surgery schedule to ration supplies. Gaza is thought to have enough food for a week.

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