Fateh loyalists hurry to escape Gaza

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza — Umm Mohammad and her children cowered in no-man’s-land on Monday with Israeli troops firing warning shots in front and Hamas gunmen behind.At least 150 Palestinians whose loyalties are with President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh faction sat in the concrete passage near Erez Crossing, trying to escape the Gaza Strip after armed Hamas Islamists took over last week.

The refugees want to reach the West Bank, where Western backed Abbas holds sway, but they need to cross Israel first.

“We are prisoners, trapped between two fires,” said Umm Mohammad, a mother of three, as gunfire echoed nearby. “Our men are under threat of being killed. We are not safe at home.” Palestinian officials said nearly 2,000 Fateh supporters and leaders had escaped from Gaza to the West Bank with special Israeli permits or had fled by boat to Egypt since Hamas routed Abbas’ security forces.

Abbas’ emergency Cabinet vowed on Monday to exert its control over Gaza, but it was unclear how that might happen.

Economic conditions looked set to worsen still further there, with Israel tightening its embargo.

The Fateh refugees, including many families, are wary of appeals from Hamas to return home.

“We understand their worry but the fears are unfounded,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, accusing Fateh leaders in the West Bank of inciting unwarranted panic.

“Even leaders, not only members, who remained in Gaza have been granted an amnesty. We have even ordered guards outside their houses for their own sense of security,” he said.

Israel, which backs Abbas, confirmed that some Palestinians had been allowed entry on humanitarian grounds, but said granting further access was difficult because it now had nobody to talk to in Gaza.

It has been near impossible for most Palestinians to cross the 45km  between Gaza and the West Bank for years because of Israeli security measures imposed during an uprising.

“There’s a Hamas administration now without links to Israel.

“Those we worked with in the past are not in touch with us any more,” said Shlomo Dror, a defence ministry liaison officer.

Hamas dragnet

Anyone trying to flee Gaza City must first face Hamas checkpoints. Those caught are turned back and have their identity cards confiscated. Hamas said it wanted to prevent people “involved in sedition” from reaching the West Bank.

The few who dodge Hamas forces to reach the Erez Crossing feel safe from the gunmen, who are reluctant to enter the corridor that is under constant surveillance by Israeli troops.

Children find shade behind suitcases. Men doze on the ground. The only way for the refugees to get water is to send an ambulance that has to pass through the Hamas blockades.

Umm Mohammad urged Abbas to talk to Israel so that the refugees would be allowed through.

“We are hiding behind walls. If we go to that side the Jews fire at us and if we go to the other side, the executive force fires at us,” she said, referring to the Hamas fighters.

Hamas officials said there was an amnesty for everyone from Fateh, whatever their role in the past weeks of fighting, but Abbas loyalists said they were still being pursued.

They pointed to an incident in northern Gaza, where four Fateh men were brought before a crowd and accused of involvement in killing Hamas fighters. Hamas said it spared their lives and granted them amnesty on the grounds of Islamic morals.

“They wanted me to show up, make a confession and later be released. I can never do that, I am not a criminal,” said one gunman from Fateh’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, in hiding. He hoped he would be able to reach the West Bank at some stage.

At Erez, pro-Fateh journalist Sami Abu Al Enain sat in the shade, waiting for a permit to leave and wondering when he might be able to return from the West Bank now the Hamas takeover has imposed a further division between the territories.

“We are not escaping, we are leaving from one arm of the homeland to another. We do not want to be killed here,” he said.

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