Israeli Arabs Begin Pilgrimage To Mecca
ALLENBY BRIDGE, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ Hundreds of Israeli Arabs, many dressed in white prayer robes, crossed this Israeli checkpoint into Jordan on Monday during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
About 5,000 Moslems from Israel will make the pilgrimage, or ″hajj,″ this month, the highest number since 1977, when Saudi Arabia first permitted Israeli Arabs to visit Mecca, the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia.
But the Arab uprising has reduced the number of pilgrims from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to 1,300, down 75 percent from last year. Palestinians blamed lower incomes following a rash of strikes and additional exit restrictions imposed by Israel to quell the uprising, in which 215 Palestinians and four Israelis have died.
″It hurts my heart that so many of my brothers cannot go this year,″ said Ali Mohammed Jaber, 35, from the Israeli Arab village of Taibeh. ″I will pray for them and for peace everywhere in the Moslem world.″
Jaber, dressed in a white robe and prayer cap, spoke in the parking lot of the Allenby Bridge checkpoint, where about 25 buses carrying pilgrims waited to make the crossing into Jordan.
Around him, other white-robed pilgrims stood amid their belongings to prepare for a last security check. The parking lot was filled with suitcases, bedrolls, and plastic yellow shopping baskets filled with Arab pita bread and olives.
In one corner of the lot, Israeli officials and Arab dignitaries held a brief ceremony to send off the pilgrims.
Zvulun Orlev, the director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry, cited Israel’s religious tolerance and reminded the audience of religious persecution suffered by Jews.
He also said this year’s pilgrimage was overshadowed by last year’s riots in Mecca that ″demanded a high price in blood and desecrated the most sacred site of Islam.″
More than 400 people, most of them Iranians Moslems, were killed and hundreds injured in the clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security personnel. The Saudis accused the Iranians of holding demonstrations, including anti- U.S. protests, in defiance of a ban on political activity.
In April, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran, citing terrorism and subversion.
″I’m lucky I wasn’t there last year,″ said Abed Gunna, 49, from Taibeh, who is embarking on his third hajj. ″But I’m not worried about my safety this time.″
Religious Affairs Ministry officials said three doctors were accompanying the pilgrims, partly to ensure medical care in case of renewed clashes.
The Israeli Arab pilgrims leave for Mecca during a three-day period ending Wednesday and must return by early August.
According to the Moslem lunar calendar, the pilgrimage month is expected to begin July 14. The high point of the hajj should fall on July 22.
Pilgrims must get special permits to pass through Jordan. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are technically at war with Israel.
Israeli officials barred pilgrims from returning with more than $1,200 to block the flow of funds that might be used to finance the nearly 7-month-old uprising, Israel radio reported.
Udi Bahat, a spokesman for the Religious Affairs Ministry, said the number of Israeli Arab pilgrims was up 20 percent from last year. He cited as reasons for the increase the Islamic revival in the Middle East and the fact that Israel this year reduced the minimum age for pilgrims from 35 to 30.
However, under the age restrictions, those between 16 and 36 who go to Jordan are ordered to stay there for nine months before returning. The measure was adopted several months ago to try to prevent messages from being passed to and from members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.