Mon, Dec 01, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Hamas police stop Muslim pilgrims from leaving Gaza

AP , GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP

Hamas police set up checkpoints across Gaza on Saturday to prevent pilgrims from leaving for a holy Muslim ritual in Saudi Arabia, beating some who tried to dodge barriers, witnesses said.

The Islamic militants who rule Gaza were upset that the pilgrims coordinated their journey with Hamas’ rival, the Palestinian Authority. The authority, based in the West Bank, is run by Hamas’ bitter rival, the Fatah movement. The crackdown on the pilgrims highlights the depth of the bitterness between the two groups.

Egypt criticized Hamas’ actions as unbecoming of an Islamic movement.

The pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is meant to be undertaken by Muslims at least once in a lifetime, and is considered a great event for believers.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah-allied forces last year, and animosity between the rivals has growing in recent months.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority and the Hamas rulers of Gaza submitted separate lists of Gaza pilgrims to the Saudi authorities for visa approvals in the weeks leading to the pilgrimage, which will take place this month.

The rival Palestinian governments each claim to be legitimate, and their wrangle over who has the authority to send Gaza pilgrims to Mecca is a measure of sovereignty. So far Saudi Arabia has rebuffed the Hamas list. Different regions are given quotas for the number of pilgrims they can send to Saudi Arabia, and Gaza was allowed to dispatch about 3,000.

On Friday, the Palestinian Authority announced that pilgrims should report to the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt the following day.

The Gaza pilgrims were to cross into Egypt and travel from there to Mecca. But after the Palestinian Authority announcement, Hamas police set up 16 checkpoints on roads leading to the passage.

Witnesses said police sent back cars that appeared to carry pilgrims.

“They called us traitor pilgrims,” said a man who identified himself as a pilgrim to a Gaza television station.

Some pilgrims managed to dodge checkpoints by taking back roads to the Rafah crossing with Egypt. There, Hamas police beat up those who refused to leave, said pilgrims speaking on a call-in show on the pro-Fatah Palestine Television.

“They were beating up with sticks and their rifle butts,” said one man who identified himself as a pilgrim. “There was tear gas.

It looked like an action movie,” he said.

A woman called in, saying her mother, a pilgrim, was beaten on her hand and needed treatment.

Witnesses would not give their names, for fear of retribution by Hamas police.

Hamas police did not allow reporters into the area close to the border crossing.

Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said nobody was beaten and said the press were not banned from the area.

Another Hamas official, Abdallah Abu Jarbou, said only pilgrims who had coordinated through the Hamas government would be allowed to exit the Gaza Strip.

“We are the legitimate government,” Abu Jarbou said.

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