'Unclear how, if at all, Egypt can explain this'
Jerusalem officials say Israel wants Cairo to explain why Palestinian pilgrims were allowed to return to Gaza without going through security inspections, as was agreed between Barak and Mubarak. 'They've essentially handed Hamas a victory,' say State officials
The issue of the Palestinian pilgrims is only the latest crisis to add fuel to the flaring tensions between Israel and Egypt.
Hundreds of Palestinian pilgrims made their way back into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing on Wednesday after being stranded on Egyptian soil for almost a week following their return from the haj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, according to Palestinian sources.
The circumstances that allowed for the return of the pilgrims remain unclear, although unidentified sources in Gaza said the pilgrims did not employ force and their passage was coordinated with Egyptian authorities.
Among those returning to Gaza are dozens of senior Hamas political and military figures. Israel claims that some of the returning Palestinians raised millions of dollars for Hamas while in Saudi Arabia and Israel also suspects that some underwent military training in Iran.
'Violation of our understanding'
Unnamed State sources in Jerusalem said that opening border crossings without inspecting those going through them "constituted a violation of the understandings between Israel and Egypt."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said the sources, had agreed with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian Defense Minster that the pilgrims would return to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, under Israeli inspection.
Hamas had rejected the Israeli-Egyptian understandings and insisted that the pilgrims should not be subjected to Israeli scrutiny.
At this hour, Hamas-controlled media outlets are celebrating what they describe as a "victory for the resistance."
"Egypt essentially allowed Hamas to stand up to Abu Mazen (PA President Mahmoud Abbas) and Israel and declare that they've won," said State officials in Jerusalem, who had harsh words for Cairo following the incident.
"Egypt did something that places them in a very problematic point on the scale. They basically allowed Hamas to declare this as a victory for the resistance. There is no doubt that these things strengthen the claims made through diplomatic channels against Egypt and the situation along its border with Gaza as well as its general stance on the issue of the Rafah border crossing and the border. It is unclear how, if at all, they will be able to explain this."
The Prime Minister's Office, Foreign Affairs Ministry and Defense Ministry are still studying the details of the case, and no official position has been determined.
But even now senior State officials can say that Egypt will have to explain why it failed to comply with the agreement. Especially when the concerns at hand were shared by both Jerusalem and Cairo, that Hamas would grow stronger in Gaza. The objective was not to aggravate the innocent pilgrims, but rather allow security forces to prevent the smuggling of cash and terrorists into the Gaza Strip. "We don't understand how this happened," said the official.
Haniyeh: Egypt did not bow to Israeli pressure
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh appeared on television on Wednesday and blessed the Palestinian returnees on their victory. He said that their return through Rafah is indicative of the "victory for our path, a respectable path, and for the resistance and for the adherence to Palestinian principles."
Haniyeh also blessed the Egyptian government for their decision to allow the return of the pilgrims through Rafah.
"We thank Egypt for not bowing to the extortion that was used against it and the pressures – especially the pressure and the threats that Israel hurled at the Egyptian foreign minister – and enabling the return of the pilgrims," Haniyeh said.
Ali Waked contributed to this report