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Gazans fleeing Hamas trapped at crossing into Israel

Hundreds of frightened Palestinians spent another night in a tunnel leading to Israel, trying to flee the chaos and threats of violence in Gaza but trapped by Hamas militants on one end and Israeli forces on the other.

The Palestinians, including many women and children, were short of food and water in the steamy tunnel, which is part of the Erez crossing and has no sanitary facilities. Elsewhere, Israel allowed a food aid shipment into Gaza on Tuesday, the first since Islamic Hamas took over the territory in a lightning conquest of rival Fatah forces last week.

Israel's Supreme Court is scheduled Wednesday to hear a petition by local rights group Physicians for Human Rights demanding that Israeli authorities offer immediate medical treatment to any of the Gazans stranded at Erez who are in need of it, the group said.

Ran Yaron, a doctor with the group, told Israel Radio Wednesday that 15 Palestinians' lives are in danger and the necessary treatment is not available in the Gaza Strip.

"Israel has a responsibility since it closed the ... crossings," Yaron said. "It has the responsibility to find a solution for these patients."

Israel allowed in two Palestinians wounded in a shootout at the terminal, the army and medical officials said. Three other people wounded in the Palestinian infighting last week also were allowed to pass. The army did not provide details of the identities of the wounded, who were taken to Israeli hospitals.

As the standoff stretched on, the scene inside the tunnel grew increasingly desperate.

Women, children and young men sat between two high concrete walls Tuesday, about 10 meters (yards) apart, looking tired and grimy. Suitcases and trash were strewn on the ground. Some families sat on mats, others on bare asphalt, including several men with bloody bandages on their legs. A breeze barely stirred between the walls, and the tunnel, which has no toilets, reeked of urine and sweat.

"It's disgusting. People are using the walls as toilets. The women are suffering," said one man inside, refusing to be identified out of fear for his safety. He said people's nerves were frayed, and they were fighting over food.

To maintain order, Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rolled up to the Palestinian side of Erez on Tuesday, chasing away cars parked next to the tunnel. One tank blocked people from leaving or entering the tunnel.

The tanks pulled back later Monday, the military said, but people were not being allowed to enter Israel.

Witnesses said about 600 people were holed up in the long concrete tunnel that leads to the Israeli side of the crossing. About 100 of them were believed to be fleeing Fatah security men, with the others civilians seeking a better life in the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank are separated by about 30 miles (50 kilometers) of Israeli territory.

Israel, which has sophisticated weapons screening equipment in place at Erez, said it was letting only the staff of international organizations, people with special permission and humanitarian cases to cross.

"We don't think that all of them there are threatened," Nir Peres, a military liaison officer, told Israel Radio.

Abu Mustafa, a Fatah fighter seeking to leave Gaza through Erez, feared he is a marked man, dismissing a Hamas amnesty.

"They forgave people before and later killed them. There's no way we'll go back," he said.

A Fatah leader in the West Bank, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter, said President Mahmoud Abbas was not interested in having Gazans stream out of the coastal strip and leave it an undiluted Hamas stronghold.

Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Palestinians now have two rival governments - Abbas' Western-backed government in the West Bank and the Hamas rulers of Gaza. The international community has embraced Abbas, while the Islamic militant Hamas government has been shunned.

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to bolster Abbas in his battle with Hamas, calling him a moderate voice and the only true leader of the Palestinian people.

"I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him," the Israeli prime minister said. Bush called Abbas "the president of all the Palestinians" and "a reasonable voice among the extremists."

Talking to reporters in Washington, Olmert pledged to free tax money Israel has collected for the Palestinians but has frozen since Hamas took power. He did not give an amount, but the total is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Olmert also said he would act to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank and would also consider releasing Palestinian prisoners and shoring Abbas' security forces.

Gaza's borders have been sealed since the street battles that led to Hamas' conquest of Gaza broke out last week. On Tuesday, Israel let in a first food aid shipment, from the U.N. World Food Program - 10 truckloads of food and two trucks carrying medical supplies.

The WFP ordinarily feeds 250,000 Gazans, and Shlomo Dror, an Israeli military spokesman, said aid would continue to flow, unless there is Hamas "interference."

Before dawn Wednesday, Israeli troops entered the southern Gaza Strip and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen, killing two of them, the army and militant groups said. Another three Palestinians were wounded in the shootout, Hamas, Palestinian Resistance Committees and Islamic Jihad said. One soldier was moderately wounded, the army said.

Troops acting undercover in the village of Karara were discovered by the gunmen who fired at them, prompting the army to send six tanks, 2 armored personnel carriers and a bulldozer to the area, Hamas and the Palestinian Resistance Committees said. The army said the entrance of the troops had been planned and was meant to counter militant activity in the area.

In the West Bank, two Palestinian militants were killed early Wednesday after an hourslong shootout with Israeli troops in Kafr Dan, a village near Jenin, residents said. One was a local commander from the Islamic Jihad militant group and the other a local commander from a violent offshoot of Fatah.

Witnesses said about 30 jeeps and a bulldozer entered the village in an arrest raid, and a fierce exchange of fire ensued. The militants were killed and the house in which they were holed up was partly burnt, they said.

The army said armed men opened fire from the house on troops, who shot back, killing two militants.

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