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Palestinians stranded in Egypt leave for Rafah crossing

Groups say 160 Palestinians were stranded for 13 days after Egyptian authorities suddenly closed Rafah crossing.

Some 160 Palestinians, who were stranded in Cairo's airport for nearly two weeks after being denied entry to the Gaza Strip, are being allowed to return to the enclave.

The Palestinian embassy in Egypt announced on Monday that the Rafah border crossing would be opened that day to allow the Palestinians to return to the Gaza Strip.

One traveller, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that the group had been put on buses and taken out of the airport.

The group was stranded in Cairo airport for 13 days after Egypt suddenly closed the border crossing.

Egypt had previously said it would temporarily open the Rafah crossing on February 7 for three days, but closed it two days later, on February 9.

According to human rights groups and some travellers, the group experienced "horrible" conditions - without access to proper food, a shower or mattresses to sleep on - while stuck at the airport.

'People were exhausted'

The group was returning to the Gaza Strip, bordering Egypt, last week when Egyptian security forces told them the border crossing was suddenly closed and demanded that they return to the countries from which they came, they said.

"We refused because there were people who had completed their studies abroad and were going back home, and others who were abroad for medical care and were also returning," the same traveller said.

"People were just exhausted. We were mentally prepared to return home," the man said, explaining that they were stopped at Balouza checkpoint in Sinai, several kilometres from the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

He said the group underwent "six hours of interrogation and humiliation" before being asked to return to Cairo airport.

'Animals would not be able to live here'

The Gaza Strip - home to some two million Palestinians - does not have an airport and has been under an Israeli land, sea and air blockade for over a decade.

Israel controls Gaza's airspace and territorial waters, as well as two of the three border crossing points. The third - Rafah - is controlled by Egypt and is rarely opened. 

READ MORE: A guide to the Gaza Strip

For the majority of Palestinians who wish to travel study or seek medical care abroad, they must cross into Egypt before being able to take a flight to their destination.

When the group was forced back to Cairo airport, an envoy from the Palestinian embassy threatened them, according to the traveller. 

"He told us that we either agree to be peacefully detained in this hall with our dignity intact or that he'll bring security forces to detain us with force," the man said. 

"Since we are the weaker link, we agreed to go into this hall at our own will. More than 70 percent of us are women - many of whom are pregnant - as well as children, sick and elderly people," he added.

The man also said that the conditions inside the hall were "appalling", and explained that the group has been sleeping on the floor and metal chairs for the past 12 days. The hall, he said, only had two bathrooms.

"One hundred and sixty people without a shower for 12 days," he said.

"The bathrooms have no soap. It is catastrophic. Animals would not be able to live here."

Many in the group reportedly contracted skin diseases, and one man was left untreated after experiencing heart issues.

'Sovereign Egyptian decision'

On Sunday, the Palestinian embassy in Cairo released a statement late saying that the group was brought back to Cairo airport based on a request from Egyptian security forces.

The embassy said it was "providing full services and care" to the group, as well as offering "food, drink, blankets, items for child care, and medical care".

It added that it has "spared no effort in working with Egyptian authorities" to get the group out of the airport, adding that it is working on issuing visas for students so they could return to the countries they were studying in.

"These are sovereign Egyptian decisions that the embassy is considerate of."

'This is shameful' 

Several human rights groups condemned the situation that the stranded travellers had to endure.

The Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK had called on the Palestinian embassy to "carry out its duties and pressure Egyptian authorities to allow [the group] to return to the Gaza Strip or secure temporary accommodation until the crossing is reopened".

"The organisation calls on the Egyptian authorities to comply with international law and to allow those stuck to return".

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said, "Hundreds of other Palestinian citizens are still stranded and held on the Egyptian side" of the Rafah border crossing - unable to enter Gaza or return to Egypt.

The Palestinian ambassador in Cairo was not immediately available for comment. 

"We are extremely exhausted. I called the Palestinian ambassador and told him you have two options: we will call on the Israelis to release us from here or you do something," the traveller said. 

"This is shameful. It is shameful for us to say we have a country or a government. It is shameful for us to say we have a country when they cannot even get 160 people out."

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