Two dozen Fatah activists have sneaked out of Hamas-ruled Gaza in recent days, including a woman who said she hitched a ride with farmers on a donkey cart Friday to get past Hamas troops at a border checkpoint.
The getaways are the latest twist in a vitriolic standoff between the Islamic militant Hamas and the pragmatic Fatah, bitter Palestinian rivals who rule Gaza and the West Bank, respectively.
Fatah is holding its first convention in 20 years, starting Tuesday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. More than 1,500 delegates are to attend, including 450 from Gaza.
However, Hamas says it will not allow the Gazans to leave until Fatah's leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, releases some 900 Hamas detainees he holds in the West Bank.
Rather than wait for an unlikely compromise, 27 Fatah delegates sneaked out of Gaza in recent days, said Ghassan Jadallah, a Fatah organizer.
Travelers leaving Gaza have to present their documents at a Hamas checkpoint about a mile away from Gaza's Erez crossing into Israel. Several hundred yards closer to Erez, in an area off-limits to Hamas, another checkpoint is staffed by Abbas loyalists who coordinate with Israeli border officials by walkie talkie to direct the flow of passengers.
Israel and Egypt have virtually sealed Gaza's borders since a violent Hamas takeover of the territory in June 2007. Few Gazans are permitted to leave Gaza via Erez. They include medical patients with severe illnesses and business people.
However, Israel has granted permits to nearly all the Fatah delegates from Gaza, in a gesture of support for Abbas. Israel has also permitted scores of Fatah delegates from the diaspora to enter the West Bank, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"It is really shameful that the big question mark is about delegates coming from Gaza," he said.
Hamas vows 'unpleasant procedures'
Ghaliya Abu Sitte, 63, a Fatah delegate from the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, said she left home early Friday, put on the traditional Muslim veil and long robe, took a taxi and got out a few hundred yards before the Hamas checkpoint.
"I saw a donkey cart with two women who were collecting grass and wood," she said in an interview later Friday at a West Bank hotel. "I got on the cart. I thought to myself, 'They won't notice me if I ride it.' I passed the Hamas checkpoint. They didn't stop me or ask me."
Jadallah said others posed as medical patients on their way to treatment in Israel, including a woman delegate who got in a wheelchair and was pushed by three fellow Fatah activists. Others bypassed the Hamas checkpoint by walking through orange groves.
Abu Sitte said her daughter-in-law, who accompanied her for the trip to the border, was later detained by Hamas police. She and other Fatah delegates said they would return to Gaza after the conference and were not afraid of arrest.
Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu said Fatah activists had been warned against trying to sneak out. "Anyone who defies these rules will face unpleasant procedures," he said.