Unwritten deal paves road to Mecca for Israeli Arabs

This week busloads of Israelis are leaving behind their villages, towns and cities to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform one of the five pillars of Islam - the pilgrimage to Mecca. "It's with the agreement of the Saudis," said Sheikh Hashem Abdulrahman, the mayor of Umm el-Fahm, and formerly the head of the Haj Association in Israel. "They know we are Israeli." An unwritten agreement between Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia allows 4,500 Muslim Israelis to travel every year to Saudi Arabia for the haj. The number of Israelis making the haj, said Abdulrahman, is the highest in the world in proportion to the number of Muslims from the country. Saudi Arabia allows in 1,000 pilgrims per every million Muslims in a country. Israel has only 1.1 million Muslims, "but they let us send four and a half times more than is allowed," said Abdulrahman, who will begin the two-day trip to Mecca by bus on Saturday. The procedure is arranged between local religious Muslim organizations and the Jordanians; the Israeli government officially stays out of it. The Muslim organizations send a list of the selected haj pilgrims to the Islamic Wakf in Jerusalem which passes it on to the Wakf in Jordan. The Jordanian Wakf requests temporary Jordanian passports from the Jordanian Interior Ministry for the pilgrims. The passports are brought to the Saudi Embassy in Amman, where they get visas. When the Israelis arrive in Amman, they deposit their Israeli passports with the Islamic Wakf and pick up their temporary Jordanian passports, already stamped with a Saudi visa, said Abdulrahman. This year the haj begins on January 7, and continues through January 13.