Hamas urges Egypt to open Gaza border to pilgrims

Other News Materials 30 December 2007 03:47 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters )- Hamas Islamists called on Egypt on Saturday to open its border crossing with the Gaza Strip to let more than 2,000 Palestinians return to their homes from the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca.

Hamas , which controls Gaza, wants Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing to allow the Palestinians to pass directly into the coastal territory rather than going through Israeli border posts first.

A Hamas official said Egypt informed the groups that it will allow all the stranded Palestinians to disembark from ships to enter Egypt, but it remained unclear when and how they would enter Gaza.

Hamas said it was confident all of the Palestinians will be allowed to enter through Rafah , but feared Israel would arrest militants who are among the pilgrims.

Hamas officials estimated 2,200 Gaza pilgrims were stranded on ships at an Egyptian port on the Red Sea. An Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman said he had no information on any deal with Hamas , but the first ship had arrived in the port.

Israel believes some of the militants may be carrying money for Hamas and other groups.

Thousands of Palestinians, including family members of those who are stranded in Egypt, held a rally in the southern Gaza town of Rafah , calling on Egypt to allow the pilgrims to return.

"We are aware of the Israeli and American pressures on Egypt, and we urge Egypt to reject these pressures and to allow the pilgrims a safe return through Rafah ," Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told a news conference.

Hamas said a 62-year-old woman who fell ill died aboard one of the ships, which have been stranded for a second day.

Abu Zuhri said the pilgrims have rejected Egyptian proposals that they agree to return through Israeli-controlled crossings.

Israel and the United States are pressing Egypt to do more to prevent the smuggling of arms and funds into Gaza. Egypt has rejected Israeli complaints about the smuggling, accusing Israel of trying to distract attention from Jewish settlement building.

In mid-December, Israel allowed hundreds of Palestinians from Gaza to cross Israeli territory on their way to the annual haj pilgrimage. Earlier in the month, about 2,200 pilgrims heading for Mecca crossed from Gaza into Egypt through Rafah .

Israel has tightened its military and economic cordon on Gaza since the group seized control of the territory in June.