Hundreds of Israeli pilgrims motored in police-escorted convoys across the Nile Delta on Tuesday to pray at a 19th century Jewish holy man's tomb, where people received them with curious stares and a little resentment.
Egypt laid on exceptional security. Police special force troops with automatic rifles guarded the convoys of luxury coaches. The Israelis were not allowed to mingle with the residents of this western Delta town, 170 kilometers northwest of Cairo, but were confined to a cordoned-off parking area next to the shrine.
State Security officers refused to admit The Associated Press, and the government press office in Cairo, reached by cell phone, endorsed the refusal.
The pilgrims, some singing and clapping, made the two-hour drive from Cairo to see the tomb of Yaakov Abuhatzeira, a Moroccan rabbi who earned a reputation for healing people and died in 1880. His grandson, called "Baba Sali," is better known and his tomb in Netivot is a popular pilgrimage site.
Residents gawked from their windows and balconies as the big coaches slowly wound their way along the muddy road to the shrine. The authorities had just widened the road, leaving piles of rubble and freshly turned earth on the side, and had created a parking area in what had been a field of lush clover. A steamroller was leveling it as the first coaches arrived.
"I don't want to see them here," tire-repairman Mohammed Sharqawi said of the Israelis. "I watch television and I see what is happening in Palestine."
But, two stores along the main road, Ali Mohammed Tanani said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one thing, the pilgrims were another.
"We have our sacred places. If they think it's a sacred place, they have the right to visit. They are our guests," said Tanani, who runs a small grocery shop.
Egypt guards the stone tomb, which stands in a small chamber, and allows visitors only for the January anniversary of Abuhatzeira's death. The pilgrims do not walk around Nekraha; they go to the shrine and leave.
But in 2003 a small group of pilgrims stopped at Tanani's shop and, using their interpreter, bought fizzy drinks and chocolates. "They were polite," Tanani recalled.
The tomb is a vestige of Egypt's once-prosperous Jewish community. Jews in Egypt go back to the time before Moses. And by the founding of Israel in 1948, they numbered about 80,000 people. But wars, and the resentment and expulsions that they engendered, have reduced Egypt's Jewish community to about 60 people, living in Alexandria and Cairo, according to the Israeli embassy.
Some residents of Nekraha believe that Abuhatzeira's shrine is not even the tomb of a Jew.
"I think the grave is that of a Muslim from Morocco called Mohammed," said shopkeeper Leila Khalil, adding that she had read that in Al-Osboa
, a weekly newspaper known for stridently nationalistic views.
Khalil said President Hosni Mubarak was making a mistake by allowing the Israelis to come to the shrine. And in past years, such as 2001 when the Palestinian intifada was raging, the government has bowed to popular pressure and refused visas to Israeli pilgrims.
Khalil said she did not like Israelis visiting her town. Asked why, she replied: "Do the Jews like Arabs and Muslims?"
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