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Middle East
Political play snares Gaza pilgrims
Hamas security forces stop Gazans at Rafah crossing amid dispute over Hajj visas.
Last Modified: 29 Nov 2008 23:48 GMT
Haniya has said Gazans will be allowed to leave for Hajj once all of the pilgrims receive visas [AFP]

Thousands of Palestinian pilgrims seeking to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj have been blocked from leaving the Gaza Strip in the latest twist of the territory's internal political divisions.

Security forces for Hamas, the Palestinian faction in control of Gaza, reportedly turned pilgrims back from the Rafah border crossing into Egypt on Saturday.

A number of pilgrims told Al Jazeera they had been beaten by Hamas security forces for trying to cross.

While Egypt has mostly kept its border closed to the besieged strip since Hamas took control of the territory more than a year ago, Egyptian officials insisted that the border post had been opened for three days to allow pilgrims through.

Hajj, the annual pilgrimage obligatory once in a lifetime for all Muslims with the means to afford it, is set to begin next week.

Religion and politics

The fate of Gaza's pilgrims has been in question for weeks amid continued political jockeying between Hamas and rival Palestinian faction Fatah.

At issue was also Saudi Arabia's recognition of the Hamas government structure in Gaza as legitimate.

Around 3,000 Gazans applied for Hajj visas through the ministry of religious affairs based in Ramallah, West Bank, while another 3,000 applied through the Gaza-based ministry.

Saudi Arabia is said to have it granted visas only to Palestinians who registered for Hajj through the Ramallah offices of the Palestinian Authority, which is run by Fatah.

Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader who was deposed as the Palestinian Authority's prime minister last year, has urged Riyadh to issue visas to the remaining Gaza pilgrims.

He said pilgrims would be able to travel only once that had been done.

"For many Palestinians the idea that there is a siege [of Gaza] but also now Palestinians are denying each other the right to leave is extremely disheartening," Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin in Gaza City said.

"And that was reflected on the faces of the people we spoke to today."

Palestinian Authority officials accused Hamas of committing a "crime" for not allowing pilgrims with visas to leave.

"Saudi Arabia only recognises the Palestinian Authority, which represents all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank," Jamal Bawatma, minister of religious affairs for the Palestinian Authority, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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