Egypt lets pilgrims pass through to Gaza
JERUSALEM – Over Israel’s objection, Egypt allowed hundreds of stranded Palestinian pilgrims en route home from Mecca to return to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday without permitting Israeli authorities to screen them for smuggled cash or weapons.
The decision ended a five-day standoff and drew a sharp protest from Israeli officials. The pilgrims, who had completed the Muslim hajj ritual in Saudi Arabia, got stuck in Egypt last weekend when the government said they would have to pass through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing.
Egypt relented, allowing passage through the Rafah terminal on its border with Gaza, after pilgrims rioted and threatened a hunger strike. Pilgrims who are leaders of the Hamas movement, which rules Gaza and advocates Israel’s destruction, were involved in the protest.
Egyptian security officials told the Associated Press that 2,152 pilgrims were being allowed to return to Gaza.
Israeli officials said they feared that some of the travelers were carrying weapons or large sums of cash for Gaza’s Hamas leaders, who are under an Israeli blockade. Israel, like the United States, considers Hamas a terrorist group.
Egypt has cooperated with the blockade by keeping its Rafah border terminal closed. It made an exception to allow Mecca-bound pilgrims to leave Gaza last month.