Hajj in Exchange for Power

Calling on Gazans to register via Ramallah is part of an ongoing policy of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to crush governing norms in Gaza, in the hope this will bring about a collapse of the Hamas government.

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GAZA - The Hamas government is preventing thousands of Muslims from leaving the Gaza Strip to go on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca - a religious duty - on the Id al-Adha (feast of the sacrifice) holiday.

What a sensational headline, what a fascinating paradox. What Israel has never dared to do - certainly not to this extent - is being done by a Palestinian government for which Islam is the basis of its platform and provides personal guidance for each of its ministers.

Why does the Ismail Haniyeh government need the headache of the images of security roadblocks on the main road in Gaza preventing would-be pilgrims from reaching the Rafah crossing, which Egypt has announced will be temporarily opened, and the reports, including exaggerated ones, about people beaten by Hamas security forces because they insisted on getting close to the crossing? Why did the government decide not to allow out some 3,000 Gazans registered for the pilgrimage with the Palestinian religious affairs ministry in Ramallah as long as Egypt and Saudi Arabia don't allow an additional 3,000 Gazans who registered with the religious affairs ministry in Gaza to go on hajj?

This headache is the best proof of the determination of the Hamas government in Gaza to curb any attack on its legitimacy and authority, and any effort to disrupt its plans to bring order to the Strip. It is defying not just the Ramallah government, but also Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

As it does every year, Saudi Arabia has set quotas for how many pilgrims to Mecca each country (or in this case, the West Bank and Gaza) can send for Id al-Adha, which takes place on December 8 this year. The quota for the West Bank and Gaza is 8,000 pilgrims - 5,000 from the West Bank and 3,000 from Gaza. Until this year the registration process (and the lottery for the many registrants) took place separately in each of the two areas: West Bank religious affairs (Waqf) officials registered and conducted the lottery for Palestinians in the West Bank, and Gaza Waqf officials did the same for Palestinians in the Strip. But this summer, the Ramallah Waqf Minister Sheikh Jamal Mohammed Bawatneh struck an agreement with Saudi Arabia that visas would be granted only to those who registered through the ministry in Ramallah. That, of course, is a clear political statement accepting the Ramallah government as legitimate, in contrast to the other government, the deviant one in Gaza.

And people did register. Few found ways to send their passports to Ramallah, and most registered at special travel agencies or simply called the Waqf in Ramallah directly, sent in their details and were assured that permits to Saudi Arabia were awaiting them in the Egyptian city of El Arish. These registrants include Palestinian members of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But the Gaza government said the registration must be carried out in an orderly manner, and only through the Waqf in Gaza. Its police force confiscated the lists of people who had registered in offices that worked with Ramallah, and detained their owners for questioning. Some warned that anyone coordinating the hajj through Ramallah would be brought to trial.

About 20,000 Gazans registered with the Gaza Waqf, official sources said. Of those, 3,000 were chosen by lottery to comply with the quota. They have already received the vaccinations necessary for the trip, but do not have visas for Saudi Arabia. The 3,000 Gazans who registered in Ramallah have received the visas, but not the vaccinations. The authorities in Gaza have announced that the vaccinations, which are given in government clinics, will not be given to the "Ramallah pilgrims" if the ones registered in Gaza do not receive visas.

West Bank residents who registered for the hajj are already in Saudi Arabia, while 6,000 Gazan registrants are biting their fingernails between rumors, reports, statements and public prayer services, as hope mingles with disappointment. In the meantime, Egypt has announced that the Rafah crossing will be open for the hajj. The authorities in Gaza, which are responsible for the Palestinian side of the crossing, say the opening was not coordinated with Gaza border officials or border police. The Egyptian announcement was also seen as siding with Ramallah, perhaps as an indirect way of expressing discontent over Hamas' last-minute cessation of conciliation talks in Cairo.

Calling on Gazans to register via Ramallah is part of an ongoing policy of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to crush governing norms in Gaza, in the hope this will bring about a collapse of the Hamas government. The hajj registration issue is one of several similar moves, including the extended enforced strike at government schools and hospitals in the Strip, which is purportedly based on professional union demands but was reportedly encouraged by the Palestinian Authority. The Hamas government has managed to employ new teachers to replace the striking ones and bring many hospital employees back to work.

The hajj issue is similar. The Hamas government is convinced that a concession here, even for the sake of allowing Gazans to fulfill a religious duty, will just encourage Ramallah to continue taking steps to disrupt order in Gaza. The Islamic ruling party is sacrificing one hajj for the good of the message that its government is the only legitimate address for the residents of the Gaza Strip to turn to.