GAZA CITY AND JERUSALEM — Thousands of Muslim pilgrims Friday were stranded in the Gaza Strip, unable to fulfill their plans to perform the hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime religious obligation. The reason: a power struggle between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah over which one has the right to distribute visas to visit Saudi Arabia.
Hamas forces, which have controlled Gaza for nearly 18 months, were blocking more than 2,000 people from crossing into Egypt, despite the fact that the Egyptian government temporarily opened the long-shuttered Rafah crossing to admit the pilgrims headed to the holy city of Mecca.
"There were around 100 Hamas police officers standing and closing the gate with their bodies in a human chain," said Abu Thaeer, a 38-year-old jeweler. "We tried to convince them that we are not Hamas and not Fatah."
The standoff started when Hamas accused the Saudi government of using the hajj visa process to undermine its rule and bolster rival Fatah, which controls the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority.
Saudi Arabia issues a strict quota of hajj visas to different countries each year, with about 4,000 intended for West Bank residents this year and about 2,200 for Gazans. Hamas insisted that it should have the right to choose who gets the Gaza visas.
Hamas and the Palestinian Authority submitted separate lists of Gaza pilgrims to the Saudi authorities for approval. But the Saudi government, which generally fears the rise of militant Islamic groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, accepted only the Palestinian Authority's list. Hamas responded by declaring that nobody would be able to leave Gaza unless its list was also approved.
"The Gaza share this year was seized" by the Palestinian Authority, said Hamas' minister of religious affairs, Taleb abu Shaer. "The ministry wanted the pilgrimage season to be an occasion of reunion between Gaza and the West Bank people and wanted to cooperate with the officials in [the West Bank city of] Ramallah to facilitate the travel of pilgrims, but they refused."
For the pilgrims of Gaza, the political spat has ruined their dreams this year of performing the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and mandatory for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it. The several-day cycle of rituals in and around the city of Mecca begins Saturday. Pilgrims from the West Bank started leaving for Saudi Arabia two weeks ago.
Palestinian Authority Minister of Social Affairs Mahmoud Habbash acknowledged in a news conference in Ramallah that it was too late for Gaza's would-be pilgrims to reach Mecca in time.
"It's an infringement on God's religion," said Habbash, a Fatah loyalist. "It's a hideous crime committed by Hamas against pilgrims wanting to perform one of the main pillars of Islam."
The Hamas decision was a potentially dangerous move by the group, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and routed Fatah forces and took full control of Gaza in June 2007, when a short-lived unity government collapsed.
By blocking the pilgrims, Hamas risks alienating the population of Gaza, which has largely continued to support the group despite an Israeli-backed blockade that has shattered the already limited economy of the tiny coastal strip.
"I never expected Hamas as an Islamic movement to do this. It's a crime against humanity," said Abu Thaeer, the jeweler.
The move has brought condemnation from Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which generally support Fatah but usually refrain from open criticism of Hamas in the name of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
A report by the official Saudi news agency quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official as saying he was shocked at Hamas' move, and denying that the Saudi government played favorites with the visas.
In Cairo, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al Azhar Mosque, Sunni Islam's preeminent institution, said it was a sin to prevent pilgrims from reaching their destination.
Ashraf Khalil reporting from Jerusalem
Abu Alouf reporting from Gaza City