Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ship Intifada and pilgrim lottery

While a Libyan ship tries to break the siege with food and medicine, Saudi bureaucrats stymie pilgrims, bemoans Saleh Al-Naami

Click to view caption
Palestinian workers wait for the arrival of a Libyan aid ship in vain, as Israeli warships chased it away

Her suitcase is still on the sofa by the front door to her home in the eastern quarter of Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza Strip. Attaf Al-Sumuh, 47, still hasn't lost hope that she can perform the pilgrimage this year, even though this year's pilgrims from the world over are already in Mecca. Al-Sumuh can't accept the fact that political quibbling between the Ramallah and Gaza governments might mean that she won't be able to perform this religious duty she's anxiously been anticipating. She was supposed to perform the pilgrimage with her brother Akram, and says that she had sworn to perform it when she was cured from the illness she had suffered for three years, and registered with the Ministry of Religious Endowments under the Ismail Haniyeh government. "I can't believe this is happening, that I might not be able to perform the pilgrimage rituals due to differences between the political organisations," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This is madness."

Khaled Bareim, 53, lives in the village of Al-Qarara in southern Gaza Strip, and he registered for the pilgrimage with the Ministry of Religious Endowments under the Ramallah government. He was supposed to leave last Saturday with 200 other pilgrims via the Rafah crossing for Saudi Arabia, but the Haniyeh government's security forces prevented that from happening, as they don't have entry visas for Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrimage, like any other goal in the life of Palestinians, is now effected by the domestic split between Gaza and the West Bank. The Ministry of Religious Endowments in the Haniyeh government opened up registration for those wishing to perform the pilgrimage from Gaza Strip, just as it has during the previous two years. After 7,000 people registered, the ministry held a lottery to select 3,000 to perform the pilgrimage. Those selected were informed to prepare to travel as soon as the pilgrimage period began. Yet in the meantime, the Ramallah government announced on television that it had opened registration for the pilgrimage and that the people in the Gaza Strip who wished to perform it should contact the Ministry of Religious Endowments in Ramallah to reserve their places. And in fact, several hundred people registered with the Ramallah government. Now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is refusing to deal with the Ministry of Religious Endowments under the Haniyeh government and is dealing instead only with the Ramallah government. It has provided entrance visas only to the pilgrims listed by the Salam Fayyad (Ramallah) government, ignoring the Haniyeh government altogether.

Jamal Bawatneh, the minister of religious endowments in the Fayyad government, says that Saudi Arabia's cooperation with his ministry is natural as Arab states "deal with the legitimate Palestinian government, whereas the government in Gaza is the result of a coup and no one recognises it." Bawatneh claims that the Haniyeh government has tried to use the pilgrimage to more deeply establish its legitimacy, and he stresses that it does not have the right to represent the Palestinians under any circumstances, despite their overwhelming popularity.

For his part, Talib Abu Shaar, the minister of religious endowments in the Haniyeh government, says that the thousands of people who won the pilgrimage lottery cannot be ignored. He notes that Saudi Arabia has cooperated with his government to allow pilgrims to travel from Gaza in the past, and says that his ministry has completed all the pilgrimage preparations. It has coordinated with airline companies, rented accommodation for the pilgrims in Mecca, and vaccinated them. Abu Shaar holds that allowing some of the pilgrims to travel and not others will create strife among them. "We've supported many initiatives, and have shown our readiness to avoid political differences affecting the pilgrimage so that it can take place in a professional and competent manner," he told the Weekly.

The pilgrimage has become a major concern for Palestinians. Last Sunday evening, alongside a sit- in near the Rafah crossing organised by the pilgrims of the Haniyeh government who were demanding permission to travel, a fierce argument broke out between Ziyad Aliyan, 46, and Abu Kazim. Aliyan had won the Ministry of Religious Endowments' lottery in the dismissed government, and Abu Kazim had been selected for the pilgrimage by the Ministry of Religious Endowments in the Ramallah government. Abu Kazim happened to pass near the sit-in and showed his irritation at the calls of some of the demonstrating pilgrims for the Ramallah pilgrims to be barred from travelling until all the pilgrims nominated by the Gaza government could travel. Abu Kazim stressed that everyone had the right to perform the pilgrimage, and rejected their calls for the police force of the dismissed government to bar the Ramallah pilgrims from travelling via the Rafah crossing. Ziyad, who was interred for 12 years within occupation prisons, in turn rejected the logic of Abu Kazim, insisting that he and the others had been selected for the pilgrimage through a lottery conducted by the Ministry of Religious Endowments in the dismissed government, and that he would not give up this right under any circumstances.

The argument between these two men is just a small example of the debate now taking place among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It has become the people's leading concern, for as long as no surprises take place, this will be the first time in Gaza Strip's history when pilgrims have not been able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. And it is clear to everyone in Gaza that the problem is political rather than legal. Ghassan Al-Sumuh from the Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp told the Weekly that it is "nonsense for people not to make the pilgrimage simply due to a domestic rift and small internal differences."

But this inconvenience pales in light of the glaring Israeli blockade of basics to Gaza. Israel is stepping up its blockade with the "ship Intifada", barring the Libyan ship "Marwa" from reaching the Gaza coast. Marwa had been expected to be the first Arab ship to break the siege on Gaza, with its desperately needed 3,000 tonnes of aid and medicines. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that no Arab state has the right to transport humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip via Israel, and that aid should go through Egypt. Hebrew-language Israel radio broadcast Israeli military sources as saying that the Libyan ship had been rejected because of its large size, which meant that it could have been carrying weapons and ammunition. These sources also noted that the ship's origin in Libya had raised doubts in Israeli security circles. They added that it could be carrying Iranian military advisors arriving to offer support to Palestinian organisations in conducting "terrorist operations".

Jamal Al-Khadri, head of the popular committee for breaking the siege, told the Weekly that barring the Libyan ship "from entering Gaza Strip and continuing the siege is like a death sentence for a million and a half Palestinians." He stressed that the Israeli measure would not prevent continued efforts to break the siege on Gaza, and said that the Palestinians and the "free world" were intent on breaking it for good.

For its part, Hamas has called the attempt by the Libyan ship a "strong and brave challenge that shows a sense of responsibility towards the million and a half Palestinians under siege in Gaza as the world watches without doing anything." In a statement to the Weekly, Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum said that the occupation's barring of the ship "proves the criminal reality of the occupier who uses all the cosmetics of negotiations, naturalisation, and security coordination". Barhum asks the Egyptian leadership to immediately open the Rafah crossing and relieve the increasing suffering there. "There is no reason for it to stay closed, and if it does, that will be a crime that history will record," he said. It is also expected that two ships from Qatar and Turkey will reach the Gaza coast soon to break the siege and deliver aid to those in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Khadri says that Israeli warships forced Marwa to return to the Egyptian port of Arish after it had entered Palestinian regional waters at 6.20am. He says that he was in communication with the ship staff, but that after it reached regional waters, Israeli warships created interference for an hour and a half, cutting off communications and forcing the Libyan ship to return to Arish. Al-Khadri says that the Libyan ship tried again before noon on another day to make it to Gaza, but that the Israeli warships prevented it once more. He adds that intensive international communications are taking place to return the ship to Gaza and unload its shipment, which consists of 3,000 tonnes of aid to break the 17-month siege. Al-Khadri says that communications are taking place with numerous parties to ensure that the ship will be allowed to moor on the Gazan coast.

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