x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Palestinian rivalries stall haj departures

West Bank Palestinian Authority and Hamas row over who can attend this year's pilgrimage in Mecca.

Ramallah, West Bank // A dispute has broken out between the West Bank Palestinian Authority and the Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip over who from the area will be allowed to attend this year's pilgrimage in Mecca for Eid al Adha. The row goes to the heart of the tussle for legitimacy between two authorities that both consider themselves legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.

As a consequence, about 5,200 pilgrims who intend to attend this year's haj have found themselves stuck in the Gaza Strip. Hundreds were turned away from the border with Egypt on Saturday, with Hamas blaming Egypt for not opening the crossing. On Friday Egypt announced that the crossing would be open for three days starting on Saturday. By yesterday, no pilgrims had crossed. Egypt said it had opened the crossing but no pilgrims came through.

News agencies quoted witnesses as saying that Hamas police had turned away pilgrims trying to reach the border and there were reports of heavy-handed methods by the police, including that one pilgrim was beaten to death and a journalist arrested. The reports have been categorically denied by Hamas spokesmen. Hamas has been angered because only those pilgrims who applied through the West Bank PA, about 3,000 pilgrims, were granted visas by Saudi Arabia. The movement says it wants all pilgrims to be allowed to pass or none at all. On Saturday Atef Odwan, a Hamas official, denounced the decision not to grant visas to the 2,200 pilgrims who had registered through the Hamas ministry of religious affairs in Gaza. "By ignoring those Gaza pilgrims registered with the Waqf, Saudi Arabia is making a political mistake that will have negative consequences on the Saudi regime and the whole region," Mr Odwan said. His remark was seized upon by Fatah officials as construing a threat to Saudi Arabia. "Making such threats against Saudi Arabia reflects the extent of [Hamas's] isolation," said Ahmad Abdel-Rahman, a senior aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Mr Odwan later denied that any threat was intended. A Saudi foreign ministry spokesman, quoted by the official SPA news agency on Sunday, rejected any criticism of its visa policy. "Saudi Arabia treats all Palestinians on an equal footing? and it has increased the number of visas granted to Gaza residents because of their circumstances," the spokesman said. But he affirmed that visas for the annual pilgrimage were being granted through the Palestinian Authority under Mr Abbas, the leader of Fatah, which Hamas essentially kicked out of the Gaza Strip last year. The decision to grant visas only to those registered with Ramallah constitutes a snub to Hamas, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University. "Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt is angry with Hamas for boycotting the national reconciliation talks last month," he said. "I think both countries are trying to punish Hamas and squeeze the movement politically on the issue of the haj." The importance to Hamas of the issue, Mr Abusada said, is one of legitimacy. "Hamas is trying to say that we are the government and anyone who wants to travel has to go through us." The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have been engaged in a struggle over legitimacy since Mr Abbas sacked the Hamas-led unity government after Hamas forces ousted Fatah-affiliated security forces from Gaza in June 2007. The PA denounced Hamas's takeover of Gaza as a coup and a presidentially appointed government led by Salam Fayyad has since ruled the West Bank. Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, rejected the new government as unconstitutional and argued that an elected government could not engage in a coup against itself. The movement still recognises Mr Abbas as the president of the PA but, with his term due to end in January, has threatened to withdraw that recognition unless new elections are held, something highly unlikely in the current situation. Egyptian mediators have tried to bridge the Palestinian divisions, but Hamas pulled out of reconciliation talks days before they were meant to start in Cairo on Nov 10. That decision was badly received by the Palestinian public. A soon-to-be-released opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre found that twice as many Palestinians blame Hamas as blame Fatah for the breakdown of those talks. Significantly that number is higher in Gaza than it is in the West Bank. The haj pilgrims have thus found themselves caught up in a wider Palestinian struggle for both domestic and regional legitimacy. Hamas will be wary of criticising Saudi Arabia, but will also be reluctant to yield. Mr Abusada said the only way this issue might be resolved is if Riyadh decided at the last moment to grant visas to Hamas-registered pilgrims. Otherwise, he suggested, Hamas was coming out looking the worse. "I think what is happening is hurting Hamas more than the PA because Hamas is seen as the one not allowing pilgrims to leave and making a political issue out of a religious one." okarmi@thenational.ae