EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip – More than 100 Palestinians stranded for weeks in Egypt after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip began returning home Sunday, entering Israel and riding buses to a crossing point into northern Gaza.
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 in cars.
The violent Hamas takeover of Gaza last month triggered the closure of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which was run by Palestinian security officials with European supervision and Israeli security in the background.
The closure stranded about 6,000 Palestinians on the Egyptian side. During the violence, the European monitors fled and Hamas militiamen took control of the terminal.
Earlier Sunday, about 1,000 Palestinians gathered in a stadium in the Egyptian town of el-Arish, where authorities read the names of 105 people who they said were approved by Israel to return to Gaza.
Both Israel and Egypt have opposed reopening the crossing as long as Hamas remains in charge.
After weeks of negotiations, agreement was reached to repatriate the Palestinians through the Nitzana crossing in the desert between Israel and Egypt. In the desert heat of 100 degrees, 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 receiving 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.
Hani Jabbour, a Palestinian security coordinator stationed on the Egyptian side of Rafah, said Saturday that Israel had approved a list of 627 Palestinians who would be allowed to return, out of about 6,000 who have been living in harsh desert conditions in the Egyptian border town of Rafah.
The people remaining on the list after Sunday's journey will head out on Monday, and similar transfers are expected in the future, he added.
Those left stranded have been asked to return to Cairo to register with the Palestinian Embassy there, he said. The embassy will pass the names of those registered to the Israelis for approval.
Rafik Ahmed Salman has been stranded in Rafah for more than two months because the crossing was intermittently closed even before Hamas took over Gaza.
"I have been here for 77 days with some sick people from my family, but I hope that I will be able to cross tomorrow," he said. "This is again another tragedy of the Palestinian people."