More than 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims, whose return to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip had been delayed by a standoff with Israel, headed home through an Egyptian-run crossing on Wednesday, AFP reported. Israel had been demanding that the pilgrims use the "Kerem Shalom" crossing which it controls for fear that they might smuggle in money to the territory which Israel has declared a "hostile entity".
But Hamas insisted that the pilgrims return from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, the only one which bypasses Israel, for fear that many would be detained. An Israeli security official said the army would not act to prevent the return of the pilgrims via Rafah but he slammed Egypt for "strengthening radical forces in Gaza and helping Hamas."
Another official said the move was a breach of the understandings reached after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. "If people are returning to Gaza without going through the correct procedures, that is contrary to understandings reached," the Israeli official told AFP.
The 2,150 pilgrims had been adamant they would use only the Rafah crossing ever since they arrived off the Egyptian port of Nuweiba early on Saturday. A Jordanian foreign ministry official had said that the kingdom had received confirmation from Egypt that the pilgrims would be allowed through Rafah before they boarded ship in the port of Aqaba on Friday night. But the Egyptian authorities then demanded that the pilgrims give written pledges that they would use the Kerem Shalom crossing before allowing them to disembark, something the pilgrims refused.
During Tuesday night, woman pilgrim Mariam Mohammed Edwani, 65, died of a heart attack in El-Arish while awaiting clearance to return to Gaza, an Egyptian security official said.