Gazans give thanks as Egypt opens border to Umrah pilgrims

Gazans give thanks as Egypt opens border to Umrah pilgrims
In-depth: After four years, Egypt is opening its border to Palestinians in Gaza who want to take part in the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, reports Rami Almeghari.
5 min read
21 February, 2019
Millions of Muslims go on to the Umrah pilgrimage every year [Getty]
For more than four years, Palestinians in Gaza have been unable to perform the Umrah pilgrimage rituals in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca.

But Palestinians have now been informed by Egyptian authorities that starting from March this year, hundreds of pilgrims will be allowed to travel via the Rafah terminal.

Awad Abu Madkour heads an association of owners of 76 pilgrimage and travel agencies in Gaza City.

The travel ban was been imposed in 2014, in the aftermath of bloody violence on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Abu Madkour told The New Arab. From now on, all Palestinians - men and women of all ages - will be allowed to travel via the Rafah crossing.

The closing of the Rafah crossing into Egypt heightened the Israel-imposed siege of Gaza, and, in addition to the multiple healthcare, energy, food and trade crises the blockade has caused, travel agencies have lost revenues of more than $4 million, according to Abu Madkour.
Just 2,500 people have so far applied for this year's Umrah pilgrimage, compared with about 20,000 in 2012
"In 2012, 2013 and 2014, we used to receive large numbers of applications for the Umrah pilgrimage from local residents," he said. "During those years, the situation was much better, For example, government employees of both the Gaza- and the Ramallah-based government received full salaries. Also, the construction process was going on and labourers of all types were working.

"Now, the situation is getting worse and people seem worried about the future. That's what I myself have noticed."

Just 2,500 people have so far applied for this year's Umrah pilgrimage, compared with about 20,000 in 2012.

At the Mushtaha travel agency in Gaza city, one of the largest in the coastal territory, Hadi Nabrees, a 35-year-old computer engineer and father of one daughter, told The New Arab that he hopes to reach out his sister, who lives in the United Arab Emirates, if he manages to make it to Mecca for the Umrah.

"Umrah has two sides, tourist and religious," he said. "Actually, I look forward to reaching out to my relatives in the United Arab Emirates. We hope that all will go well, in terms of the travel arrangements and prices."

The Gaza Strip has been subject to many travel restrictions since 2007, when Israel imposed a siege on the region. Ever since, the Rafah crossing into Egypt has been the main route for Gaza to the outside world. Yet, Egypt has frequently closed the terminal, allowing only a few categories of travellers from Gaza - students, medical patients with overseas treatment arranged and holders of residency permits of nearby Arab countries.

Waseem Mushtaha, director of the Mushtaha travel agency, told The New Arab that he and other travel agencies were solely and strictly responsible for the travel and return to Gaza of all pilgrims within a period of 14 days. His agency has deposited a sum of 257,000 Saudi Riyals as a financial guarantee with the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, in case of any breach.

"Before [a person] wants to go on the Umrah, they should provide me with a certified copy of their host's residency permit, an address and a land phone number - not a cellular one that can be turned off," he said.

"Also, a given traveller to the Umrah should show me a legal signed financial guarantee, granted by a local guarantor person in Gaza. The local guarantor will be charged an amount of 5,000 Jordanian Dinars ($7,000) in case there is a breach. That way, I can guarantee that travelers to the Umrah will return back to Gaza, upon completion of the rituals."

On March 3, a group of 1,064 Gaza Umrah pilgrims will be expected to cross via Rafah on their way to Mecca. This same figure will be allowed to cross every week until the end of May. The Umrah season usually begins in October for a period of eight months. Though it is late for Gaza, the Gaza-based ministry of endowment and religious affairs - which supervises the pilgrimage along with its parallel Ramallah-based ministry, expressed satisfaction with the arrangement.

"There is a joint committee made up of staff members of both ministries in Gaza and Ramallah, headed by the Ramallah-based minister of endowments and religious affairs, Minister Yousef Edais," said Adel Alsawalha, the director of pilgrimages at the Gaza-based ministry.

"This committee is assigned with supervising and managing the Umrah for this season."

Egypt's decision to lift the travel ban for Umrah comes as Cairo attempts to mediate in the ongoing dispute between the Islamist Hamas party, in control of Gaza since 2007, and the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah. 
I feel really relieved that they have finally allowed us to go. I give thanks for everyone who has made Umrah possible
Meanwhile, Egypt has also been negotiating a "calm" between Hamas and Israel, amid continued peaceful protests by Palestinians on Gaza's border, which started in March last year aimed at breaking the 12-year Israeli siege.

According to the Gaza-based Popular Committee for Breaking the Israeli Siege of Gaza, the unemployment rate here in Gaza stands at almost 60 percent of the labour force, and more than 80 percent of Gaza's 2 million residents rely on food rations provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA.

"My daughter will be taking care of all my Umrah and she has literally told me 'even if I run out of money, I will pay for your Umrah, my mother'," Um Mohammad Al-E'mour, a 75-year-old woman from the Shati refugee camp in western Gaza city, told The New Arab.

"Actually, over the past few years, I have come over many times to the Mushtaha travel agency, to ask about the  possibility for Umrah. I feel really relieved that they have finally allowed us to go. I give thanks for everyone who has made Umrah possible. Life is short, son."

Rami Almeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza. 

Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari