(photo credit: AP)
Mohammed Habboush and his wife Ikram wanted so badly to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca from their Gaza home that they sold her gold jewelry to pay for the trip.
But while Muslims from around the world head to Saudi Arabia for the annual "hajj" pilgrimage, which starts Sunday, the couple remains at home, two of thousands of Gazan pilgrims prevented from traveling by the latest round of Palestinian squabbling.
The power to decide which Gazans can undertake the sacred hajj has become the latest battleground between rival Palestinian factions. Both the Hamas government in Gaza and the President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have used this year's pilgrimage to flex their muscles, drawing harsh condemnation from Muslim leaders for politicizing one of Islam's most sacred acts.
Performing the hajj pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and is considered the high point of a Muslim believer's life. Saudi Arabia sets the number of pilgrims different regions can send to Mecca each year. Gaza receives about 3,000 spots.
This year's troubles began when the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank both submitted lists of Gazans eligible for the hajj. When Saudi authorities granted visas only to pilgrims on the West Bank government's list, Hamas prevented them from leaving Gaza.
Both governments claim legitimacy in Gaza, but Hamas has ruled the territory since expelling forces loyal to Abbas in 2007.
Conservative Arab regimes are troubled by the Hamas takeover but usually refrain from open criticism in the name of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Egypt has hosted several rounds of unsuccessful talks to resolve the dispute between Fatah and Hamas.
But the Hamas refusal to let Gaza's pilgrims travel drew criticism from Muslim leaders.
In Cairo, Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's pre-eminent institution and oldest university, said it was sin to prevent pilgrims from reaching their destination.
"Islamic law categorically prohibits anyone from preventing others from heading to perform the pilgrimage for any reason or under any pretext," Sheik Omar Bastawisi, a former Al-Azhar senior official, told AP Thursday.
Mahmoud Habbash, Palestinian social affairs minister in the West Bank, called the Hamas actions "a double crime."
"It's an attack against religion because it's forbidding people from conducting one of their five basic religious duties, and it's discrimination that divides the Palestinian people," Habbash said at a Thursday news conference.
Talib Abu Shaar, religious affairs minister in Gaza, said Gaza's pilgrims had always been selected by local authorities and accused the Abbas regime of politicizing the hajj by breaking this tradition.
The political arguments meant little to would-be pilgrims.
"No one has ever prevented the pilgrims from getting out," said Abu Yusuf, who received a spot on the Hamas list. "I'm very surprised, especially since it was done by Palestinians, people from our country and our same religion."
Habboush, who sold his wife's gold the day he found their names on the Ramallah list, are bitterly disappointed.
"We'll sit at home and watch Mecca on TV and cry because we want to be there," he said. "People from all over the world get to go, but we can't."