Hajj pilgrims stranded in Egypt

Palestinians attend a rally organized by Hamas urging Egypt to open the Rafah border crossing and allow around 2,000 Palestinians pilgrims to return to Gaza, 29 December 2007. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

“We are in a prison. Our situation is so miserable in the arena the Egyptian authorities have placed us in. Yesterday a 45-year-old woman pilgrim died in front of us,” says Nayef al-Khaldi. The 55-year-old al-Khaldi is stuck at an arena turned into a shelter at the Egyptian border town at al-Arish along with more than 1,100 other Palestinians, including high-ranking Hamas members, following the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrims refused Egypt’s demands that they return to Gaza through an Israeli-controlled border crossing, fearing that they would be vulnerable to arrest and interrogation. Israel and Egypt claim that Palestinians could be smuggling cash to the desperate strip. Around 2,000 returning pilgrims are stranded at the Egyptian Red Sea port of Nuweiba after traveling from Saudi Arabia via ferry.

“It’s hell. The Egyptian authorities should have taken us back to the Rafah crossing terminal instead of placing us in this sports stadium. Our situation is unbearable, as no one seems to care,” al-Khaldi explains in a phone interview.

Almost one week ago, al-Khaldi completed the pilgrimage along with his wife and sister-in-law, with whom he is waiting, suffering the cold winter days and nights.

Cairo at first allowed the entry of the pilgrims through the closed Rafah terminal but now demands these worshipers to enter through the Israeli-controlled crossing. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stated on Sunday that his country wants no embarrassment of the concerned parties.

Palestinian political analyst in Gaza, Talal Aukal, views the Egyptian move as unjustified.

“Cairo’s justification with respect to the emerging standoff is inadequate as any excuses Egypt may produce should not lead to a humanitarian crisis for such helpless believers,” he said.

Aukal believes that such a crisis will take some time as the Egyptian authorities are under pressure from other parties. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who does not have actual control over the coastal region, was reportedly heading for Egypt in the next couple of days to discuss a solution to this emerging crisis. Abbas’s government in the West Bank had earlier proposed a plan to control Gaza’s border crossings, including the Rafah crossing terminal.

The situation of the stranded pilgrims is a reminder of last summer’s impasse when about 6,000 Palestinian travelers were stranded at al-Arish town after Israel closed the crossing to Gaza for three months. The crisis resulted in the deaths of some of the travelers, mostly medical patients who had already received treatment at hospitals in nearby Arab cities, including Cairo.

As the Palestinians face yet another man-made humanitarian crisis, there are mounting fears for the health and safety of the pilgrims.

Thousands of Palestinians staged protests at the Palestinian side of the Gaza-Egypt borderline in Rafah, demanding the Egyptian authorities to allow the return of their family members through the Rafah crossing terminal.

But for al-Khaldi in al-Arish, it’s ultimately not a question of conditions of Egypt but of returning to Gaza. “Whatever services the Egyptians provide us will never relive us. What relieves us is our return back to our homes straight away.”

Rami Almeghari is currently contributor to several media outlets including the Palestine Chronicle, aljazeerah.info, IMEMC, The Electronic Intifada and Free Speech Radio News. Rami is also a former senior English translator at and editor in chief of the international press center of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service. He can be contacted at rami_almeghari at hotmail.com.

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