Israel lashes out at Egypt over Gaza crossing

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel accused Egypt on Thursday of undercutting Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects by letting about 2,200 Palestinian pilgrims return to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip without Israeli screening.

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The Palestinians had been stuck in Egypt for about a week after completing the Muslim haj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Israel insisted they return to Gaza through its territory to allow them to be screened for smuggled cash or weapons.

But Egypt allowed them to return directly through Rafah, a terminal on its border with Gaza.

“Israel views with great concern the unsupervised passage into the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing point of a group of Muslim pilgrims associated with Hamas, among them terrorist operatives,” an Israeli official said.

“The group’s passage via the Rafah crossing harms counterterrorism efforts, as well as attempts to bring about calm in the region and to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” the official added.

Egypt said it allowed the pilgrims through Rafah for humanitarian reasons.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched statehood negotiations at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November with the goal of reaching agreement by the end of 2008.

The pilgrims had been stranded in Egypt while Cairo tried to negotiate on their return with Israel and the Palestinians. Some smashed furniture and windows in protests at a shelter there.

Israel has no presence at Rafah although a U.S.-brokered deal between it and the Palestinians says the crossing cannot be opened without Israeli consent. Egypt has mostly kept Rafah closed since Hamas routed Abbas’s Fatah faction in Gaza in June.

Reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by Charles Dick