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1,000 Palestinians Flood Gaza From Egypt Through Rafah Border Hole

Thousands of Palestinians, some fainting in the midday heat, flooded to the border checkpoint with Gaza Tuesday when Egypt and Israel reopened it for the first time in three weeks.

Most Palestinians were returning to Gaza, and many said they had run out of money and been exhausted by the weeks-long wait on the Egyptian side of the border.

"I will never, never, never come to Egypt again because of the pain and suffering I have endured with my wife," said Aboul Khair, 50, a barber who was returning to Khan Younis with his wife.

Initially it was said the crossing would be open for one day, but the Israeli Defense Ministry said Tuesday it was considering leaving the checkpoint open indefinitely. A military spokesman told the Associated Press that the European monitors at Rafah crossing would assess whether the border could remain open.

Thousands of Palestinians have been stranded in Egypt since Israel closed the crossing on June 25, after Gaza militants crossed into Israel and kidnapped an Israeli soldier from a military outpost.

News of the opening spread fast on the Egyptian side and the road between Rafah and El-Arish, the biggest town in northern Sinai, was quickly filled with cars and minibuses carrying Palestinians toward the border.

About 300 Palestinians crossed into the Gaza Strip in the first hour after the Rafah gates opened.

When it became evident that another 5,000 Palestinians were waiting to cross, Egypt waived the fee of 80 Egyptian pounds (US$14) that it normally charges travelers.

"We had 3,800 people who crossed today and we appreciate the efforts by the European Union. We need what happend today to happen tomorrow because there are more than 1,700 people still on the Egyptian side," Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said in Jericho.

Dozens of people — children, women and elderly persons — fainted in the heat as they stood in the crowd pressing to enter the crossing's terminal building.

Paramedics arrived in five ambulances and began carrying the collapsed people into the terminal.

A man who appeared to be in his 80s was pushed into the terminal in a wheelchair. Asked how he felt to be going home, he answered weakly: "Praise be to God."

At either end of the terminal, the staff worked efficiently and the line of travelers moved at a steady pace. It took about 20 minutes for a person to cross.

On the Palestinian side, troops of the Presidential Guards were deployed to help people carry their luggage from the terminal to waiting buses and cars.

But many people could not forget their prolonged, forced stay in Egypt.

A Palestinian student, Heba al-Qaysi, 21, said she had run out of money and had been reduced to sleeping under the stars.

"I came to Egypt to renew my visa for Saudi Arabia," she said as she waited to cross Tuesday. "I won't ever come back to Egypt after the humiliation we suffered."

The crossing was expected to close at 7 p.m. local time (1600 GMT) Tuesday.

Last Friday, the pressure to cross became so intense that militants on the Gazan side forced open a gate at the crossing, enabling about 600 Palestinians to dash home before security officials managed to reseal the border.

Rafah crossing is the Strip's only gate to the outside world that does not pass through Israel.

Thousands of Palestinians live in northern Sinai and have relatives in the Gaza Strip.