Stranded Palestinian pilgrims return to Gaza from Egypt, ending five-day standoff

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Israel accused Egypt of reneging on recent pledges to keep the border sealed.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Egypt allowed more than 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims to enter the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, drawing a fierce rebuke from Israel, which had tried to prevent top members of the militant Hamas from returning home.

Egypt's decision to open its border deepened a crisis in relations with Israel, which has accused Cairo of not doing enough to stop Palestinian smuggling of weapons and contraband into Gaza through tunnels under the border.

Israeli security officials said they expressed their outrage to Egypt, accusing the country of reneging on recent pledges to keep the border sealed.

The Muslim pilgrims left Gaza last month to make a hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. They became trapped in Egypt on Saturday when the Egyptian government -- apparently at Israel's request -- said they would have to cross through Israel, instead of going directly into Gaza through Rafah.

At least 10 senior Hamas members, including former deputy Parliament speaker Ahmed Bahar, were among the returning pilgrims. Israel was concerned they were carrying large sums of money for Gaza's Hamas rulers, who have been under an Israeli blockade since seizing the territory from their Fatah rivals in June. Israel considers the Islamic militant Hamas, which is committed to its destruction, a terrorist group.

The pilgrims refused to enter Israel and staged violent protests, setting fire to the desert camps where they were held.

The standoff was sensitive for the Egyptian government, which is deeply worried about being seen in the Arab world as worsening Palestinians' hardship in Gaza. Israel has sealed Gaza since the Hamas takeover, deepening economic hardship in an already impoverished area.

Moreover, the situation threatened to deteriorate into Palestinian protests in the Sinai. If Egypt had to resort to force to put down protests, it would likely spark widespread anger among its own population and other Arabs -- even more so because the Palestinians are Muslim pilgrims, who are supposed to be allowed to travel as freely as possible.

Hamas officials greeted the pilgrims as they poured into Gaza.

"Thank God we made it," said Samiha Qeshta, 59, an exhausted-looking pilgrim. "Our patience led us to results."

Thousands of Palestinians rallied in the southern towns of Rafah and Khan Younis to celebrate the return of the pilgrims.

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, thanked Egypt in a televised address and congratulated his people for returning "without being subject to harm or extortion from the Israeli occupation."

An Egyptian official said Israel had been informed of Egypt's decision.

But Israeli defense officials said Israel had not approved their return, and that Egypt's decision contradicted understandings reached in a meeting last week between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace deal -- Israel's first with an Arab country -- in 1979. But relations have often been chilly.

Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Egypt was doing a "terrible" job policing the border, and Israel sent a videotape to Washington of what it said was Egyptian soldiers allowing Palestinian arms smuggling.

Egypt accused Israel of trying to persuade the U.S. government to cut aid to Egypt. On Monday, Egypt's foreign minister said his government would "retaliate" diplomatically.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, apparently trying to contain the damage, said in a published interview Tuesday that he valued Egypt's friendship and prays for Mubarak's health.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said the decision on the pilgrims was not retaliation, insisting it was a humanitarian matter.

Egypt had agreed to open Rafah last month on a one-time basis because the travelers were religious pilgrims.

Both Egyptian and Hamas officials said about 2,150 pilgrims returned to Gaza on Wednesday.

At the crossing, some pilgrims pushed their suitcases in carts, topped with boxes of Coca-Cola and Fanta beverages -- coveted products that have become all but impossible to find in Gaza because of the Israeli closure.

The pilgrims weren't the only ones to cross the border Wednesday.

Many Palestinians have been stranded in Egypt since Hamas took over Gaza in June, and about 1,200 of them took advantage of the border's rare opening to return.

Hamas seized power in Gaza after routing forces from the rival Fatah movement. Hamas said it arrested nine Fatah members who tried to sneak into Gaza amid Wednesday's chaos, saying the men had fled during the June takeover. Masked Hamas security men were seen putting some of them in a minivan and driving away.

The moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is in a bitter power struggle with Hamas, raised the pilgrims' plight in a meeting Wednesday with Mubarak in Cairo.

"We asked Egypt to help, and the president (Mubarak) said he would do his best, and he did," said Nabil Shaath, an Abbas aide who attended the meeting.


Associated Press correspondent Maggie Michael in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.

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