Stranded Palestinian pilgrims head to camps in Egypt

Palestinians won't sign agreement to re-enter Gaza through Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom.

hajj gaza border 224 88 (photo credit: AP [archive])
hajj gaza border 224 88
(photo credit: AP [archive])
More than a thousand Palestinian pilgrims trapped in Egypt boarded buses Sunday taking them to temporary camps in the northern Sinai Peninsula until authorities decide where they will cross into the Gaza Strip, a security official said. The Palestinians arrived in the Egyptian port city of Nuweiba in southern Sinai on Saturday after completing their pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia but have resisted Egypt's attempts to have them return to Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Keren Shalom border crossing. Some of the pilgrims are members of Hamas, which seized Gaza in June, and they fear Israel will arrest them if they return through Keren Shalom. Instead, they want to cross into Gaza through Rafah, which is outside Israeli control. The 1,166 Palestinians who left Nuweiba Sunday boarded 29 buses headed for El-Arish, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the Sinai port city and less than 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Rafah, the security official said. A total of 3,060 Palestinians have arrived in Nuweiba on two ferries, and authorities plan to send a second batch of buses to transport those who remain, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Hamas representatives had indicated Saturday that some 1,900 pilgrims were stuck in Nuweiba, but this figure apparently only included those on the first ferry. Egypt's attempts to force the pilgrims to use the Keren Shalom crossing, reportedly under Israeli pressure, have outraged Hamas supporters in Gaza, who staged large-scale protests on Saturday. Al-Jazeera television aired interviews with the pilgrims before they left Jordan in which they showed a paper Egypt allegedly asked them to sign saying they would to return to Gaza through Keren Shalom. Israel fears that if the pilgrims are allowed to return to Gaza through Rafah, Hamas operatives might get through and sympathizers could smuggle cash to the Islamic group. Some 7,000 demonstrators gathered at the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing Saturday waving Palestinian and Hamas flags and demanding the pilgrims be allowed to enter. Hamas lawmakers echoed these calls, saying Egypt has a moral obligation to bring the pilgrims home as quickly as possible by allowing them to cross through Rafah. The leader of Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, called on the Egyptian authorities Sunday "to exercise their historical duty" to the Palestinians and let them return to Gaza using the Rafah crossing. Egypt has set up 11 temporary camps in El-Arish to house the pilgrims until authorities come up with a solution to the current crisis, security officials said.