Mecca pilgrims blocked from leaving Gaza

RAFAH, Gaza Strip Sat Nov 29, 2008 1:31pm EST

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Palestinian pilgrims bound for Mecca were prevented from leaving the Gaza Strip via Egypt on Saturday as the enclave's Hamas Islamist rulers and the rival leadership in the West Bank traded blame for the hold-up.

The pilgrims, hoping to reach Saudi Arabia next week for the annual haj pilgrimage, told Reuters that Hamas police set up checkpoints 300 meters (yards) from the Rafah border post with Egypt and turned them away. Hamas security also barred journalists from the border area of the town of Rafah.

Hamas officials blamed Egypt, saying it had not opened the border as agreed. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry and witnesses in Rafah said Egypt opened the crossing point for the pilgrims on Saturday but none came.

The root of the problem appeared to lie in disputes between the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, which each controls one of the two Palestinian territories, and also involves Saudi Arabia's policy on issuing visas to Palestinians.

At Rafah, a 60-year-old pilgrim who gave his name as Abu Abdullah said: "I am not with Fatah and not with Hamas. I wanted to worship God and to go on the haj before I die.

"Sadly, the schism has now spilled into our religion."

Every Muslim who has the means should complete the haj at least once in his or her lifetime.

Saudi Arabia says it has granted visas only to Palestinians who registered for the haj through the Palestinian Authority, controlled by President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction in the West Bank. Some 3,000 people in Gaza have done so.

A further 3,000 Gazans have tried to arrange visas through Hamas, which seized control of the enclave last year. Hamas is appealing to Saudi Arabia to relent and give them visas. Some Hamas leaders have said that unless it does so, they will prevent anyone leaving Gaza for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

CONFLICTING ACCOUNTS

At the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza, spokesman Ehad al-Ghsain denied halting pilgrims. "We are not sending people back. The Egyptians are keeping the crossing closed," he said.

An Egyptian official insisted the crossing was open to pilgrims and would remain so until Monday. Egypt has mostly kept Rafah closed since Hamas routed Fatah in Gaza last year.

Jamal Bawatma, minister of religious affairs for the Palestinian Authority, speaking by telephone from Mecca, accused Hamas of a "crime" against the pilgrimage. "Saudi Arabia only recognizes the Palestinian Authority which represents all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank," he said.

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have worked to promote an accord between the Palestinians to end a schism that has hamstrung Abbas's efforts to secure a peace settlement with Israel.

Mohammed Eid said he and other pilgrims who registered with the Hamas-run Ministry of Religious Affairs in Gaza had not been granted visas by Saudi Arabia. "We urge the Saudi king to give us visas, so that all pilgrims in Gaza can go on haj," Eid said.

"Why should my neighbor be allowed to leave and I stay here? I am not against my neighbor but this is political discrimination manifesting itself in religious matters."

(Additional reporting by Cairo newsroom; Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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