A small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews were preparing Friday to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath in Gaza, in an unlikely show of support for Palestinians in the Hamas-run coastal territory.
Bearded and wearing black hats and coats, the four members of a tiny Jewish group vehemently opposed to Israel's existence were a rare sight in the poverty-stricken Palestinian territory.
Members of the Neturei Karta group have expressed support for the Iranian regime and for others who oppose the Jewish state, which they believe was established in violation of Jewish law.
"It's crucial that the people of Gaza understand the terrible tragedy here is not in the name of Judaism," said one of the men, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of New York City, as the four prepared to observe the Sabbath at a Gaza City hotel.
Israel's offensive in Gaza destroyed some 5,000 homes and, according to figures from a Palestinian rights group, killed over 1,400 people. Israel has challenged this figure, stating that a total of 1,166 Palestinians were killed in the operation, the majority of whom were Hamas militants.
The four men are American and Canadian citizens. Israel bans its citizens from visiting the blockaded territory. Weiss and his comrades entered Gaza through a border crossing with Egypt.
This was not the first time Neturei Karta members visited the besieged strip, after a brief visit to Gaza in July of last year, when they met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh after crossing into the territory through Egypt.
Israel, which maintains a strict blockade of Gaza, would not let them cross through its passages with the territory.
"We feel your suffering, we cry your cry," Rabbi Weiss said at the time.
"It is your land, it is occupied, illegitimately and unjustly by people who stole it, kidnapped the name of Judaism and our identity," Weiss continued.
During their meeting, Haniyeh told them he held no grudge against Jews, but against the state of Israel, according to a Hamas Web site.
Neturei Karta, Aramaic for Guardians of the City, was founded some 70 years ago in Jerusalem by Jews who opposed the drive to establish the state of Israel, believing only the Messiah could do that. Estimates of the group's size range from a few hundred to a few thousand.
Representatives of the sect had previously visited Gaza when it was ruled by Fatah, Hamas' more secular rival.
One acted as Yasser Arafat's adviser on Jewish affairs, and a delegation traveled to Paris in 2004 to pray for the Palestinian leader's health as he lay dying in a hospital. Months later, a group participated in a conference in Lebanon with Hamas and Hezbollah militants.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now