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Palestinians Return to Gaza after Israel Reopens Egyptian Border - 2004-08-06

Busloads of weary Palestinians crossed from Egypt into the Gaza Strip Friday, after Israel reopened the Rafah border crossing. Some 1500 Palestinians were stranded for nearly three weeks on the Egyptian side. The returning Palestinians first passed through security and passport checks, before boarding buses to travel the short distance from the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip.

Excited friends and relatives waited behind chain-link fences to greet them.

Israel closed the border on July 18. It claimed that it had information that the border terminal building was to be blown up by terrorists.

The first to return were those who could not afford hotels, and were forced to sleep outside the terminal building on the Egyptian side of the border. Small children and elderly people were among the travelers, who had to endure desert heat and unsanitary conditions during their long wait.

Israeli officials said the decision to reopen the border was taken as part of efforts to ease local and regional tensions at the urging of the U.S. administration.

Israel constantly searches the area for tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives from Egypt into Gaza.

Earlier this week, senior Egyptian military officials visited Israel to discuss ways to prevent arms smuggling.

Israeli officials want Egypt to play a stronger monitoring role over security in the area, ahead of a planned withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip next year.