Change in Saudi Policy Prevents Over One Million Israeli Muslims From Making Hajj to Mecca

Israeli citizens could formerly perform the pilgrimage with a temporary Jordanian passport. According to a new rule in Saudi Arabia, such passports will no longer be recognized

Muslim pilgrims perform the farewell circling of the Kaaba, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 16, 2018.
Dar Yasin/AP

Over one million Israeli Muslims are banned from entering the kingdom and thus unable to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam, because of a Saudi decision to change its passport rules. This comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has praised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and talked up the importance of maintaining the regime's stability.

The pilgrimages are organized in the pilgrims' countries of origin by local committees. Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations, and Israeli citizens are barred from entering Saudi Arabia. Muslims who hold Israeli citizenships have been allowed through a loophole, however. Since 1978, in accordance with a decision by Jordan's King Hussein, Muslim citizens of Israel wishing to make the pilgrimage to Mecca can go first to Jordan, where they are issued a temporary Jordanian passport that allows them to enter and leave Saudi Arabia. 

According to Islam, Muslims must carry out the pilgrimage, called the hajj, once in their lifetime, provided they are physically and financially able to do so. It falls every year after what is considered the religion's holiest holiday, Eid al-Adha. The lesser pilgrimage, or umrah, can be performed at any time of the year and is not compulsory.

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But Saudi has changed the rules. Members of the Israeli hajj and umrah committee recently learned that its leaders would be barred from entering Saudi Arabia even with the temporary Jordanian passports for a planned umrah pilgrimage in December.

The chairman of the committee, Hajj Salim Shalata, told Haaretz that in contacts with Jordan's Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places, he learned that the Saudi authorities would no longer honor temporary Jordanian passports. Anyone seeking to enter Saudi Arabia must have a regular passport, a change that effectively blocks Israel's Muslim citizens - which comprise 17 percent of Israel's population.

Shalata said that for 40 years the arrangement worked without a hitch, and that at thousands of Muslim pilgrims from Israel made the journey every year. "We have no explanation for what happened, so we appealed to every possible avenue of help, but to our great regret the pilgrimage that was supposed to take place in December, for which thousands of people have registered, will not be held," Shalata said.

Haaretz has learned that the hajj and umrah committee asked the head of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel, Mohammed Barakeh, as well as MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List), to put the case to the Jordanian authorities and to try to pressure the Saudis into reversing the ban. Jordan's Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places said it was addressing the issue with its Saudi counterpart but no solution had yet been found.

The Saudi decision also affects tens of thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip who hold temporary Jordanian passports, although they can solve the problem by obtaining Palestinian passports or travel documents.

Members of the Israeli hajj committee and Jordanian officials alike did not publicly criticize the Saudis over the issue, but in private conversation some said the Saudis were using the decision to examine the possibility that Muslim citizens of Israel could travel directly to Saudi Arabia, as part of the growing detente between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Members of the hajj committee confirmed that the topic was raised in talks but said they had no official information that could explain the Saudi move. "We very much hope that Israel's Muslim citizens will not become hostages as a result of diplomatic issues and that all of the parties can find a solution that will put things back on track," said one committee member who asked not to be named.