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MIDDLE EAST

Relief as Egypt Lifts Palestinian Travel Ban, Gazans Resume Umrah Ritual

Egypt’s decision to lift the travel ban for Umrah comes as Cairo attempts to mediate the ongoing dispute between the Islamist Hamas party and the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

For over four years, Palestinians in Gaza, have been unable to perform the Umrah pilgrimage ritual into the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. But in 2019, Egyptian authorities lifted a travel ban and starting March of this year, Gaza Palestinians will be able to participate on a weekly basis for a period of four months.

Lifting of Palestinian Travel Ban Injects Life Into Local Economy

“The travel ban was imposed in 2014, in the aftermath of bloody violence on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula,” Awad Abu Madkour, who heads an association of owners of 76 pilgrimage and travel agencies in Gaza City, told Citizen Truth.

He said that all Palestinians – men and women of all ages – are now allowed to make the trip via the Rafah crossing.

The closing of the Rafah crossing into Egypt added to the crippling impact of the Israel-imposed siege of Gaza. In addition to the multiple healthcare, fuel, food and trade crises the blockade has caused, travel agencies lost more than $4 million in revenue, according to Abu Madkour.

“In 2012, 2013 and 2014, we used to receive large numbers of applications for the Umrah pilgrimage from local residents,” Abu Madkour added.

“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 laborers of all types were working,” he further noted.

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

But despite the lifting of the travel ban, just 2,500 people have so far applied for this year’s Umrah pilgrimage, compared to about 20,000 in 2012.

Pilgrims Flow Into Travel Agencies

At the Mushtaha travel agency in Gaza city, one of the largest in the coastal territory, 35-year-old computer engineer Hadi Nabrees told Citizen Truth that he hopes to reach out to his sister 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 travelers 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 Citizen Truth that he and other travel agencies were solely responsible for the travel and return to Gaza of all pilgrims within a period of 14 days. His agency deposited a sum of 257,000 Saudi Riyals as a financial guarantee with the Saudi Ministry of Hajj.

“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 traveler 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.”

Beginning last March 3, a group of 1,064 Gaza Umrah pilgrims was 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.”

Palestinian Travel Ban Lifted as Mediation Continues

Egypt’s decision to lift the travel ban for Umrah comes as Cairo attempts to mediate the ongoing dispute between the Islamist Hamas party, in control of Gaza since 2007, and the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Meanwhile, Egypt has also been negotiating a “calm” between Hamas and Israel amid continued 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 in Gaza stands at almost 60 percent, 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 Citizen Truth.

“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.”

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Rami Almeghari

Rami Almeghari is a freelance independent writer, journalist and lecturer, based in the Gaza Strip. Rami has contributed in English to several media outlets worldwide, including print, radio and TV. He can be reached on facebook as Rami Munir Almeghari and on email as [email protected]

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