RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, and its archrival Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, are at loggerheads over who is to go on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca this year.
The Palestinian Authority's minister of religious affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, said Tuesday that Hamas seized the passports of 70 Gaza residents slated to leave for Egypt en route to Mecca, all of whom were relatives of people killed in Israeli attacks whose pilgrimage costs were paid by the king of Saudi Arabia.
Speaking from Mecca to Palestinian radio, Habbash warned that if Hamas did not change its position by the end of the day, the 70 would-be pilgrims would lose their chance to go to Mecca this year. The pilgrims must collect visas in Cairo and would miss their flight, which is scheduled for Thursday.
Habbash said Hamas has no business interfering in the pilgrimage, which he said is the responsibility of his ministry.
Hamas acted after the Palestinian Authority refused to include 40 of the Islamic militant group's members on the list of those going to Mecca at the expense of the Saudi king.
Families who lost relatives to Israeli attacks but were excluded from the list accused the Palestinian Authority at a Hamas-organized news conference Tuesday of abusing the Saudi king's fund by sending only people it favors. They alleged that some of those selected live in Egypt or Jordan and do not meet the criteria of having had a relative killed by Israel.
The families called for an independent investigation into the way Habbash and his ministry select candidates who would be covered by the Saudi grant.
Millions of of worshipers from around the world converge on Mecca for the hajj, which is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for Muslims who are physically and finally able to perform the pilgrimage.
Egypt this week temporarily opened the Rafah crossing to allow pilgrims to leave the Gaza Strip. It keeps the crossing closed most of the time out of fear that Hamas, an ally of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and ousted President Mohamed Morsi, would smuggle arms and fighters into the Sinai Peninsula to help antigovernment groups.
Abukhater is a special correspondent.