Hamas prevents Muslim pilgrims from leaving Gaza

Hamas police prevented Muslim pilgrims from leaving Gaza Sunday for the annual Islamic pilgrimage because of internal Palestinian squabbling, drawing rare rebukes from Arab countries, AP reported.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules Gaza, blocked the crossing into Egypt, stranding Palestinians on their way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The reason - they got visas from the rival West Bank government led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas.

The "hajj" pilgrimage is considered the crowning moment in a Muslim believer's life. This year's trek should be completed by Dec. 5, according to Muslim authorities.

But early Sunday morning, black-clad Hamas police blocked the only passenger crossing between Gaza and Egypt. A handful of people waited nearby.

"We are old, tired. We've been waiting all our lives (for the pilgrimage)," said Umm Jihad, an elderly woman.

"This is not a Hamas delegation or a Fatah delegation," fumed Ashraf Lafi, a young man with a full beard and Muslim-style clothes. "This is a delegation for God."

Saudi Arabia sets quotas to different regions for the number of pilgrims they can send to Mecca each year. Gaza is allowed to dispatch about 3,000.

Abbas' Palestinian Authority and Gaza's Hamas rulers each submitted separate lists of Gaza pilgrims to the Saudi authorities for visa approvals, but so far Saudi Arabia has rejected the Hamas list.

Hamas officials were defiant on Sunday, saying nobody would leave until those who applied through the Gaza government are given visas by Saudi Arabia.

"The priority is for those who registered with us," said Hamas official Abdullah Abu Jarbou. "It is not for those who bypassed the legitimate government. They didn't go through the legal channels."

In a sign of a widening rift with regional Arab countries, Egypt's Foreign Ministry said the ban damaged "the reputation of (the) Islamic movement."

Saudi Arabia also expressed its displeasure in indirect but rare criticism.

The Saudi news agency quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official who said he was "shocked that a member of the Palestinian parliament," - referring to Hamas - "said that Saudi Arabia did not give visas to Gaza pilgrims."

Saudi Arabia "gave its visas to the Palestinian Authority," the statement said.

Hamas overran Gaza last year, expelling forces loyal to Abbas, who now rules only the West Bank. The violent Hamas takeover worsened already tense relations between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement.

Israel and Egypt have kept a tight blockade on the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized power. The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza has been closed most of the time.

Conservative Arab regimes are troubled by the Hamas takeover but usually refrain from open criticism in the name of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Egypt has hosted several rounds of unsuccessful talks to resolve the dispute between Fatah and Hamas.

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