Israel's high court has given the army 30 days to answer rights groups' protests that it is preventing 2,500 Palestinians, including pregnant women and children, from returning home to the Gaza Strip from Egypt, judicial sources told AFP on Thursday.

Some of the Palestinians have been waiting for more than two weeks because of the almost complete sealing of the Israeli occupation-controlled Rafah border since 10 July, their spokesmen said. The crossing has been open for just two days in that period.

The court ruling was released hours after three organisations and a dozen Palestinians filed a petition to seek the lifting of security restrictions so that Palestinians stuck in Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the border with Israel, could get home.

"There is a dire situation taking place right now and the high court is not working to reach a solution," said Shabtai Gold of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

No urgent appeal

He said 30 days was too long a period and that the court hearings would take place at even a later date. Gold said the petitioners' lawyer Ehab al-Iraqi had filed an emergency appeal to the court asking it to move up the deadline.

"It seems we're running out of options," said Gold, adding that the army was preventing his medical organisation from entering the Gaza Strip for what it termed the security of its Israeli employees.

Gold also said that a letter sent to Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz about the Rafah problem remained unanswered.

"We were even prevented from filing an emergency petition by the high court Tuesday evening and had to wait until Wednesday," he added.

Israeli authorities said that they closed the crossing for fear of Palestinian resistance attacks but that they had offered options.

One was the opening of an alternative crossing point 70 kilometres (45 miles) southeast of Rafah at Nissanit in southern Israel to which the stranded Palestinians would be evacuated by bus.

But they said the Palestinian Authority had refused such a solution, and the rights group in their statement also criticised the proposal, saying it would mean ferrying people by buses, with only five vehicles a day.

Cairo said yesterday talks were underway with Israel on the fate of the stranded Palestinians but no progress had been made so far.