In past years, Egypt limited the number of pilgrims visiting the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira near the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. But Israeli newspapers reported that President Hosni Mubarak accepted a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited Egypt last week to allow unlimited numbers.
"There are more coming in the next few days, hundreds, probably thousands," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Cairo airport officials say about 290 Israelis arrived on Sunday and police imposed tight security at the airport and on the main highway to Alexandria, where they will spend few days before the commemoration of the anniversary of the rabbi's death on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Abuhatzeira, who was a son to a chief rabbi of Morocco, was revered by some Jews as a mystic renowned for his piety and for performing miracles. The elderly rabbi was making his way from his native Morocco to the Holy Land in 1879 when he fell ill and died in the Egyptian city of Damanhour near Alexandria.
Vestige of once-prosperous Jewish community
Israeli Consul General in Alexandria Hassan Ka'abia said at least 500-600 Israelis have applied for visas to come. He said others are coming from Europe, especially France.
Since Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, Jewish devotees, mostly of Moroccan origin, have been flocking to the site for a ceremony at his tomb. But Egypt has limited the numbers of pilgrims. In 2001, a Court in Alexandria ruled to ban the ceremony after complaints by opposing groups.
Some residents claim the shrine is not the tomb of a Jew.
Egypt guards the stone tomb, which stands in a small chamber, and allows visitors only for the January anniversary of Abuhatzeira's death.
The tomb is a vestige of Egypt's once-prosperous Jewish community. Jews in Egypt go back to the time before Moses. And by the founding of Israel in 1948, they numbered about 80,000 people. But the Arab-Israeli wars, and the resentment and expulsions that they engendered, have reduced Egypt's Jews to about 60 people, living in Alexandria and Cairo, according to the Israeli Embassy.