Palestinian Power Struggle May Bar Pilgrims From Visiting Mecca

Dispute stems from Gaza authorities' insistence that all pilgrims leaving from Strip register in Ramallah.

The ongoing power struggle between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas' government in Gaza may prevent several thousand Palestinian Muslims from the Gaza Strip from fulfilling their religious obligation of visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrimage dispute is connected to the Gaza authorities' insistence that all pilgrims leaving the Strip register for the trip in Gaza, not in Ramallah.

But in accordance with Saudi Arabia's standing arrangement with the Palestinian Authority, Saudi immigration and pilgrimage authorities demand all Palestinian traffic into Saudi Arabia be coordinated through Ramallah.

Riyadh has set a quota of 2,300 pilgrims from Gaza and an additional 5,700 from the West Bank. Yet so far, Saudi Arabia has not granted entry visas to Palestinians who file their pilgrimage requests from Gaza.

Gazan who did register through Ramallah for the pilgrimage - "Haj" in Arabic - are not being serviced by Gaza clinics which are supposed to give them the necessary vaccinations to obtain a Saudi visa.

Hamas' spokespeople said that Gaza will not allow people who registered through Ramallah to leave as long as the people who registered through Gaza are not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia.

Najib (not his real name) is one of the people who are denied entry into Saudi Arabia after registering through Ramallah. He says he paid a steep registration fee of $2,300 for four family members. He explained he sent their passports to his brother in the West Bank.

The five relatives were supposed to leave for Saudi Arabia through the Rafah Crossing, but are now unable to do so. If they are not allowed to pass by Saturday, they will have missed the ceremonies they are required to undergo in Saudi Arabia before actually making the Haj.

The Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority are not in agreement about the number of Gazans who registered through Ramallah. The authorities in the Strip say only 200 people did so. But officials in Ramallah say they processed the requests of 2,320 Gazans.

Preventing people from leaving Gaza is standard practice for Hamas. Last week, it was an activist of the People's Party who was prevented from leaving the Strip for Ramallah, where he was scheduled to attend a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization's central committee. The detainee, Walid Abu Awed, is a PLO man with a record of publicly criticizing Hamas.