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Chaotic scene as anxious Gazans try to leave

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - A Palestinian who had to delay graduate school in Malaysia is among thousands anxiously trying to get out of Gaza now that the blockaded territory's gateway to the world has opened just a little.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - A Palestinian who had to delay graduate school in Malaysia is among thousands anxiously trying to get out of Gaza now that the blockaded territory's gateway to the world has opened just a little.

A Hamas-run passenger terminal on the Gaza side of the border was packed Tuesday with hundreds of Gazans trying to get clearance just to approach the crossing into Egypt. It was a chaotic scene, with stressed passengers arguing with overwhelmed Hamas border officials.

"Move back!" a Hamas official barked at the crowd from a handheld microphone. A policeman raised his club threateningly to cut short a dispute with a middle-aged man.

Many of Gaza's 1.5 million people have been forced to put their lives on hold during the three years its borders were sealed by Israel and Egypt, after the violent takeover by the Islamic Hamas.

Now, after last week's deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, world leaders have demanded that the embargo be lifted or loosened.

Egypt has promised to keep the Rafah crossing open every day, rather than just sporadically. But even that comes with many strings attached.

Only those with foreign passports or residency, or people requiring medical treatment or accepted at foreign universities are eligible to cross into Egypt. It's the same restricted group as in the past, though the steady opening of the terminal over the last week has helped reduce a backlog of thousands.

For some in the crowd Tuesday, it was the second or third attempt in as many days to get out, with much at stake.

Hani Ihlayyel has been stuck in Gaza since returning for a summer visit in 2006 after earning a degree in computer engineering from a college in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

His plan was to return to Malaysia for graduate school, but the blockade forced him to remain in Gaza, where he said he wasted four years with odd jobs, including buying and selling computers.

Gaza has several colleges and universities, but many areas of study, like medicine and advanced computer technology, are not available.

Ihlayyel tried several times to leave via Rafah in the past but could never get all the necessary documents together, including an Egyptian security clearance and a spot on the Hamas-controlled waiting list. With Egypt opening Rafah only a few days every month or so, the list swelled to more than 8,000 by the end of May.

By Tuesday, just over 3,000 Gazans had crossed into Egypt, and Ihlayyel felt he might have a chance. He arrived at the Gaza terminal at 6:30 a.m. and waited for his name to be called to receive a ticket for a seat on a bus taking him to the crossing.

Three hours later, a Hamas official announced that no more tickets would be issued for Tuesday because four buses had already crossed and no more would be accepted by Egypt. Those in the terminal, Ihlayyel among them, were now waiting for tickets to cross Wednesday.

As the oldest of six brothers, Ihlayyel said that he felt pressure to succeed and that his future depended on getting out of Gaza. The stakes are so high, he said, so much can go wrong.

"I am afraid of Hamas, of Egypt, of everything," he said. "I'm scared, actually."

An Egyptian border official said about 500 Gazans, or seven busloads, were to be allowed to leave every day. Senior Hamas officials are banned from traveling, according to Egyptian officials.

Egypt's renewed promise Monday to keep the Rafah terminal open came as Vice President Biden met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and called for new ways of dealing with Gaza.

On Tuesday, Israel rebuffed calls led by Turkey for an international inquiry into what caused last week's deadly raid, in which nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed, saying it would conduct its own investigation.

Israel opposes a complete opening of the Gaza border, fearing that would strengthen Hamas, which the West brands a terror group, and allow the import into Gaza of weapons, including missiles that could hit all over Israel.

Israel has suggested it is willing to expand the list of several dozen basic humanitarian items it has permitted into Gaza since 2007, while continuing to ban all exports.