AL-OJA, EGYPT — After being stranded for more than two months in Egypt, hundreds of Palestinian refugees returned to Gaza on Monday, fearful of the abysmal economic situation but jubilant to be going home.
"I feel as if I'm going to heaven," said Mahmoud Mahmoud, a 41-year-old electrician from Gaza.
Men, women and children heaved and hauled their luggage across the security checkpoint, smiles breaking out on their faces as they received their stamped passports.
An official at the Palestinian embassy in Cairo confirmed that a group of 313 Palestinians had crossed the border Monday, after 100 had crossed Sunday.
Some 6,000 Palestinians have been stuck in Egypt since June after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip and ousted President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party. Israel immediately sealed all of Gaza's borders, preventing people and commerce shipments from entering.
After intensive diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Israel agreed to let in 627 Palestinians. On Monday, Israel announced it would allow in 1,000 more Palestinians.
The Egyptian-Israeli deal stipulated that Palestinians pass through the Al-Oja terminal, a crossing into Israel designed for cargo, and from there travel 25 miles in the desert to the Erez crossing in Israel, through which they would enter the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians returning on Monday said they suspected this was done so that Israel could arrest their young men, but there were no reports of any arrests.
The one direct crossing terminal between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah remains closed.
People returning to Gaza today said they didn't know how they would make a living in Gaza.
"I see the future is black," said Mohsen Khalil, 47, a car repairman from Khan Younis. "I don't know how we'll live. My shop is closed," he said.
Many of those crossing into Gaza on Monday said they supported Fatah and would prefer a return to the situation before the Islamic militant group Hamas won the legislative elections of 2005, which led to economic isolation and international boycott.
Others praised Hamas for returning security to Gaza and said the economic plight was nothing new for Gaza. They also blamed their long wait in Egypt on Abbas and Fatah.
"The rumors about President Abbas are right — it's him and his gang who told the Jews to stop us from crossing," said Yasser Ahmed, 48, a building contractor from Gaza. He admired Hamas and said that 70 percent of the Palestinians support them. "Now there is peace and stability in Gaza. There is no corruption or bribes," Ahmed added.
The Palestinians who had come to Egypt mainly came for medical treatment or to visit family in Egypt. After the border closed they found themselves stuck in the towns of Rafah and al Arish, where they had to spend their savings on renting chalets and apartments until the border opened. The less fortunate, and those whose money had run out, had to settle in shelters set up by the Egyptian government in schools and youth centers.
Since June, more than 30 people have died from health complications, and four babies have been born in the shelters.
In Cairo, Arab foreign ministers met to push a Middle East peace plan between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which has been replaced by a Fatah-controlled emergency government, isn't part of the deal, and remains isolated.
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)