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Egypt opens Rafah crossing, as relatives of 'martyrs' set off for the hajj

Aug. 27, 2017 12:57 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 28, 2017 10:23 A.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Egyptian authorities on Sunday morning opened the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip to allow a group of hajj pilgrims -- all said to be family members of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces -- leave the besieged coastal enclave to travel to Saudi Arabia via Egypt, Gaza's crossings department said in a statement.

The statement said that 500 pilgrims arrived at the Palestinian side of the crossing early Sunday morning hoping to leave to Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula. From there they will head to Cairo's airport and continue their journey to Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

The crossing will operate on Monday for the same reason, while Egyptian authorities are also expected to allow a number of humanitarian cases to leave the Gaza Strip for Egypt, including students and patients, according to the crossing's department.

While it remained unclear how many would succeed in crossing into Egypt, the Palestinian Ministry of the Waqf (Islamic endowment) and Religious Affairs previously said the Egyptian government had agreed it would allow just 240 Palestinian worshipers to leave Gaza on Sunday.

The Palestinian embassy in Cairo said on Friday that during the two-day opening, Egypt would also allow Palestinians stuck on the Egyptian side of the border to come back to Gaza, though the crossing department's statement made no mention of Rafah being open in both directions.

The announcement that the pilgrims were all relatives of "martyrs," or Palestinians slain by Israeli forces, came after head of the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners' Affairs Issa Qaraqe harshly criticized the Ministry of the Waqf and Religious Affairs for not making an effort to enable the families of prisoners to perform the hajj this year, as part of a grant by the Saudi king dedicated to the families of martyrs.

Qaraqe said in the statement on Saturday that "there is room for approximately 1,000 additional pilgrims within the Saudi grant, but nobody is trying to include the family members of prisoners." He claimed that a "big portion" of the Saudi grant is not being put to use.

According to Qaraqe, both the prisoners themselves and their families have complained about being left out of the program. The plights of the families of Palestinians who have either been slain or imprisoned by Israeli forces are deeply connected in Palestinian society, and both groups receive financial assistance from Palestinian authorities.

"A number of fathers and mothers of prisoners, especially those of long-serving ones, have passed away while waiting to perform hajj pilgrims," Qaraqe said.

Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah crossing for four days earlier this month, when at least 2,371 hajj pilgrims in addition to 320 Palestinians with urgent humanitarian needs were allowed to leave, according to the United Nations. Before that, the crossing was last opened for the exit of people in May.

Many Gazans are prevented from leaving or entering the besieged coastal enclave, sometimes for months at a time, as Egyptian authorities only periodically open the Rafah crossing, stranding Palestinians on both sides of the crossing during closures. According to the United Nations, the crossing was opened only 44 days in 2016, and 21 days in 2015.

Rumors have circulated in recent months that the Rafah crossing could open on a more regular basis, as Gaza's de facto ruling party Hamas has sought to grow ties with Egyptian authorities.

Since Hamas’ leadership recently concentrated in Gaza, the political party is dependent on the goodwill of the Egyptian government to maintain its leaders’ freedom of movement through the crossing, which has been mostly sealed by Egyptian authorities since President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013.

Reports emerged in Israeli media last week that Egyptian authorities could reopen the Rafah crossing on a regular basis in September, following the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, after renovations aimed at “allow(ing) the passage of goods and protect(ing) the crossing against terror attacks” were complete.

Without access to the Rafah crossing, many Palestinians in Gaza must depend on the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing to exit the besieged territory.

However, the number of Israeli exit permits granted to Palestinians from Gaza has dropped “dramatically,” Israeli NGO Gisha noted earlier this month, with the number of permits given monthly by Israel dropping to just half the amount issued in 2016.
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