Libyans cut short Israel pilgrimage: Arab protests mar trip to holy sites by worshippers who have Gadaffi's blessing

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The Independent Online
HIZBOLLAH did not mince its words. The 'evil fool of Libya', the 'Zionist entity' , the 'Western imperialists' and their 'Arab cohorts', were all to blame for yesterday's 'ugly crime'.

But to what was the Iranian- backed Party of God referring? Another bloody outburst in the Middle East conflict? Another assault on Islam? The 'act of treachery' this time was a pilgrimage, hosted by Israel, for nearly 200 Libyan Muslims. The man behind the event was Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, who had allowed the pilgrims to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Muslim feast of sacrifice and redemption - Eid al- Adha.

It was an event which for Israel held out the prospect of reconciliation with a number one Arab enemy - but which collapsed amid scenes of unprecedented farce. The group arrived on Monday expressing nothing but joy to be on their way to the holy sites. But by yesterday evening the pilgrims had been reviled by fellow Muslims at the al-Aqsa mosque, and disowned by their Israeli hosts for calling for the 'liberation of Jerusalem'. This morning they were making the 1,800-mile trek, overland, back home.

By allowing the 'Libyan tour' (fixed up by the Saudi Arabian financier Adnan Khashoggi and Yaacov Nimrodi, an Israeli businessman) Mr Gaddafi was breaking every rule in the Arab book. He was accepting Israeli hospitality on occupied soil and, worse, he was acknowledging the state's role as custodian of Muslim holy sites.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation said it was 'shocked and dismayed' by the Libyan move.

An unguarded Israel, however, had blithely welcomed the pilgrimage. Ministers said they hoped soon to welcome Mr Gaddafi himself to Jerusalem.

As soon as it began the pilgrimage went wrong. At the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims, the pilgrims were harassed by Palestinians who accused them of recognising Israel by coming to Jerusalem to pray.

The Libyans then held an impromptu press conference in their five-star Israeli hotel, built on Arab soil, in east Jerusalem. They insisted their motives were pure. They insisted also they had only come to Jerusalem because Saudi Arabia had barred them from Mecca. Saudi Arabia enforces a United Nations embargo against Libya, instituted when Mr Gaddafi refused to hand over two Libyans for trial in connection with the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Turning from prayers to politics, the delegation leader, Dow Salem Tajouri, then announced: 'On this occasion we call on all Muslims in this world to participate in liberating Jerusalem, which ought to be the capital of the Palestinian state.' He then attacked Saudi Arabia which he said was also 'occupied', urging 'holy fighters' to liberate Mecca and Medina. He added that Russian and Ethiopian Jews should be sent home from Israel and announced his support for the Palestinian intifada.

Israel had no choice then but to wash its hands of its difficult guests. The Prime Minister's spokesman, Gad Ben Ari, said the Libyans were not being expelled. 'The decision to leave was taken by the pilgrims. We were not involved,' he said.

The Tourism Minister, Uzi Baram, ordered his staff to sever contacts with the Libyans. Several MPs called for their expulsion, while the leader of the far-right Tsomet party, Rafael Eytan, said Mr Baram and the Police Minister, Moshe Shahal, had been given 'the slap they deserved'. Mr Shahal has disclosed secret contacts between Israel and Libya.

But last night the question remained: what were Mr Gaddafi's motives? Was he courting the United States' favour by cosying up to Israel, seeking forgiveness after the Lockerbie affair? Were there other motives which are not yet clear? Or was he just playing the maverick again, reminding the world he was still there?