Hamas rally (archive)
Photo: Reuters

Stranded Palestinian pilgrims allowed back into Gaza

Israel, Egypt and PA craft accord to enable stranded Palestinians returning from Mecca to re-enter Gaza; Egypt to perform security inspection at border, report any suspected smuggling attempts to Israel - both countries fear Hamas militants hiding amongst pilgrims may try to bring large amounts of cash into Gaza

Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority reached an agreement on Sunday evening to allow thousands of Palestinians returning from the haj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia to return to their homes in the Gaza Strip.


Hamas had demanded that Egypt reopen the Rafah crossing to allow the pilgrims to pass directly into the coastal territory rather than force them to pass through Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom border crossing.


Israel and Egypt both insisted however that they all pass through Israeli security checks, fearing Hamas militants hiding amongst them would try to smuggle in large sums of cash into Gaza.


Palestinians sources claimed that the agreement stipulated that Egypt would check the Palestinians and report any suspected smuggling incidents to Israel.


Hamas blamed Israel and the PA government, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for trying to use the pilgrims to leverage political pressure on the organization.


President Hosni Mubarak had said on Sunday that he wanted to see a quietly negotiated solution.


"Those Palestinians are our brothers. We'll find a solution for them, but let's do without loud mouthing. Negotiations won't work that way," he told a news conference in Cairo.


Most of the border posts around Gaza have been closed to Palestinians since June, when Hamas defeated the rival Fatah group in the territory in June.


The case of the pilgrims gave rise to a heated debate in the Egyptian parliament on Sunday, with most members favoring their return directly to Gaza without Israeli checks.


Hamas Islamists called on Egypt to open its shuttered border crossing with the Gaza Strip to let the Palestinians return to their Gaza homes on Saturday.


Hamas officials estimated that 2,200 Gaza pilgrims were stranded on ships at an Egyptian port on the Red Sea.


"We are aware of the Israeli and American pressures on Egypt, and we urge Egypt to reject these pressures and to allow the pilgrims a safe return through Rafah," Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told a news conference.


Reuters contributed to this report


פרסום ראשון: 12.30.07, 18:55
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