For the first time in five years, Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip have been allowed to cross over into Egypt via the Rafah border crossing to begin their initial stage of a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Umrah.
The first convoy of 800 Palestinians passed into Egypt early on Sunday, according to an official at the crossing in the Gaza Strip, heading towards the Egyptian capital where they were expected to catch flights to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s an incredible feeling, thank God for that. We have waited for this moment since 2014,” Fathia Abu Eita, a passenger on the Cairo-bound bus, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press news agency.
Security sources on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing confirmed it was the first such permission for the Muslim Umrah pilgrimage since the start of Egyptian military operations in northern Sinai in 2014.
Egypt halted the Umrah programme for Palestinians in Gaza in 2015 over instability in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula that borders the Palestinian enclave, but still allowed transit for the main annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Umrah is the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca that can be completed throughout the year, as opposed to the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Around 2,500 pilgrims are authorised annually to leave Gaza via Egypt to perform Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who is able to afford the journey is obliged to undertake at least once in their lifetime.
The Rafah border is the main exit point for the majority of Gaza’s two million population. The Erez crossing, the other exit for Palestinians in Gaza, is managed by Israel, who puts severe limitations on the number of people who can pass through it.
Gaza has been under a land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel since 2007 when Hamas – the group that governs the Strip – took over power after winning a parliamentary election.
Egypt has also maintained the blockade, but as its relations improved with Hamas, it began reopening the largely sealed border more regularly last summer.
Since March 30, 2018, Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza have gathered every week by the fence with Israel, calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their lands, and demanding an end to the 12-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade.