Palestine pilgrims forced to travel via Israeli-run crossing

Hundreds of Palestinian pilgrims returning to Gaza from Mecca went on the rampage in temporary desert camps yesterday after Egypt insisted that they go home via a border crossing controlled by Israel. They demanded to enter the strip via the same Egyptian terminal through which they left for Saudi Arabia.

The protesters, among 1,100 who had been transferred by bus to the Sinai capital of El Arish from their Red Sea ferries, smashed windows and burned mattresses and blankets. Khadra Massoud, a 67-year-old woman, collapsed and died during a scuffle between pilgrims and Egyptian policemen. Palestinian sources in Gaza said that another woman had died from sickness and seven others were taken to hospital.

Egypt, which supports the Israeli and international siege imposed after Hamas seized Gaza in June, allowed a few thousand to leave via its Rafah terminal because it did not want to be accused of stopping Muslims making the Haj. But President Hosni Mubarak last week accepted an Israeli demand to send them back via Kerem Shalom and Erez between Egypt and Israel and Israel and Gaza respectively.

Aryeh Mekel, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said: "Among those who left supposedly for the Haj were a good number of Hamas members, including some who are wanted by Israel. We don't know where they really went and what they really did. There are suspicions that they intend to bring back a lot of money in order to finance terror attacks. They want to come back via Rafah because they know they might be arrested."

The Associated Press reported from El Arish that the stranded pilgrims included at least 10 well-known Hamas activists, led by Khalil al-Haya.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said that about 360 genuine pilgrims broke ranks and began returning to Gaza via Kerem Shalom and Erez yesterday. The army was checking Palestinian claims that a woman pilgrim was shot dead when troops opened fire at Erez, but had received no reports of any such incident.

Hamas said the woman's death proved the pilgrims were right to insist on returning via Rafah. The organisation called Erez "the crossing of death".

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