Israelis 'have it better' on haj [p. 1]

For the Palestinian pilgrims, the haj began with crowded tents and a long wait for the bathroom. For the Israelis, it was a lot easier. "The Israelis get everything better, better conditions and more participants than any other country," Raed Abu-Shamsieh said, speaking by cellphone from the valley of Muzdalifah, one of the stops of the pilgrimage in the Saudi Arabian desert. A 32-year-old Jerusalemite, making the haj for the first time along with his mother Nahla, Abu-Shamsieh is traveling as one of the 7,000 Palestinian participants. They left Jerusalem in late December on a bus filled with Hebronites and on Sunday began the haj at the bottom of Mt. Arafat. Saudi Arabia allows 1,000 pilgrims for every million citizens from participating countries, organized by each country's haj committee, liaising with the Saudi haj authorities. The Palestinians get a higher proportionate quota, and the Israelis a higher proportionate allocation still. An estimated 5 million people are on the haj, and "conditions are difficult," Abu-Shamsieh said. Overall though, he said, the experience was "incredible." On Sunday night, they slept in large tents spread for miles at the foot of Mt. Arafat; each country had its own encampment and the conditions varied from camp to camp. The Palestinian camp was nothing to write home about, according to Abu-Shamsieh. "We are 3,500 men and we had only 20 bathrooms," he said. "You had to wait half an hour for your turn." Worse, he said, was that the Palestinian men slept "100 men in each 100-square-meter tent. We didn't sleep well. Everyone was complaining." The Israelis, on the other hand, "had it much better - only 40-50 per tent. And they were closer to the exit of the encampment. The Jordanians have it a little better than we do. Only we had a bad situation." Abu-Shamsieh blamed the Palestinian haj committee. "Our administration didn't take care of us properly. It needed to make requests [with the Saudi authorities] ahead of time. The people here are really upset." The committee could not be reached for comment. Back in Mecca, where pilgrims spend time before the haj (and return after it), the pilgrims shared large suites with kitchenettes in apartment-style hotels. "There were four bedrooms and two bathrooms" in Abu-Shamsieh's 24-man suite, he said. But there too, he claimed, the Israelis were treated to better conditions - "better houses, which were closer to the [Grand] Mosque. The Arab Israelis get everything better, every year. I don't know why." Israeli Arabs send more pilgrims proportionately than any other country. Sheikh Hashem Abdulrahman, the mayor of Umm al-Fahm and formerly the head of the haj association in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post before he left that although Saudi Arabia allows 1,000 pilgrims per every million Muslims in a country, 4,500 Israelis make the haj. Israel has only some 1.1 million Muslims, "but they let us send four and a half times what other countries would be allowed," he said. Israeli Muslims make the pilgrimage thanks to an unwritten agreement among Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They are given a Jordanian identity for a single month, so that they do not enter Saudi Arabia on an Israeli passport. Palestinians also get to send more than the usual allocation - 7,000 in all.