PA: Gazans who paid hajj fee to Hamas won't travel to Mecca
Fatah-led PA: Fee can be paid only to us; Hamas women protest to free loyalists from Palestinian jails.
Thousands of Gazans hoping to make a pilgrimage to Mecca got caught between rival Palestinian governments Saturday, with the West Bank administration announcing that those who registered for the trip with the Hamas rulers of Gaza won't be able to travel.
The pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, known as the hajj, is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims, and around four million make the trip annually. The hajj will take place in December this year.
Hamas and its Fatah rival have accused each other of politicizing religion. Hamas seized Gaza by force in June, prompting Fatah's leader, moderate Palestinian Auhority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss the Islamic militant group and set up a rival government in the West Bank.
Saudi Arabia assigns a quota for the number of pilgrims that can attend from each country. Gaza's quota is around 2,100 and so far, about 11,000 Gazans have registered. Pilgrims are chosen randomly from registration lists.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank said only it is authorized by Saudi Arabia to charge the $420 pilgrim registration fee, to be paid into a Gaza bank account. Those not chosen can get their money back or stay on the list for another year.
But after the June takeover, Hamas ordered pilgrims to pay their fees to a bank under its control.
"Those pilgrims will not undertake the pilgrimage," said Ziad Rajoub, head of the Hajj Authority in the West Bank. Rajoub said the Palestinian Authority needs to use the pilgrims' fees to start booking hotels and transportation to Saudi Arabia.
"That's why we've asked our brothers in Hamas to return the money," Rajoub told a news conference.
Previously, the Hajj Authority had said it would accept Gaza pilgrims regardless of where they paid their cash. He said he would give Hamas two weeks to return the fees.
A senior Hamas official said the Gaza government would not back down, and it's unlikely most pilgrims can afford to pay the hefty registration fee twice - most Gaza residents live on less than $2 a day.
Saudi officials were not available for comment.
Hamas women protest to free loyalists from Palestinian jailsHundreds of female Hamas supporters, some fully veiled, marched Saturday to demand the release of members of the Islamic militant group from Palestinian jails.
The protest was the first during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan held by Hamas loyalists in the West Bank.
Palestinian police formed a chain to prevent the women, some covering their faces and others wearing headscarves and long coats, from gathering in Ramallah's main square, where protests traditionally converge.
Protesters gathered in a side street, chanting "God is great" and "Yes to Palestinian unity," and waving Palestinian flags. They also heaped verbal abuse at police, which included a contingent morality police, newly formed to ensure public observance of the dawn-to-dusk fast during Ramadan.
Police said one of the women also attacked a security official, sending him to a hospital. Police said they tried to disperse the protest because it was not licensed.
Sabah Katalouni, 41, said her husband, a 50-year-old municipal official, was arrested Friday after security officials broke into their house and fired in the air. Katalouni said pro-Fatah officials beat her husband and her son. "They are oppressors," she said of Fatah.
"It is Ramadan and our brothers and fathers are in Abbas's jails," said a woman who gave her name only as Rula. "We are one Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank... Abbas is helping the Israelis by jailing his own people."
The women said some 700 Hamas loyalists have been arrested in the West Bank since Hamas took control of Gaza by force in June, and that some 150 still remain in jail without charge.
Palestinian human rights groups have said some Hamas loyalists were harshly beaten during arrests.
Ashraf Ajrami, a minister in the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, said the numbers of arrested were exaggerated but declined to provide specific numbers.