Nearly two thousand Palestinian pilgrims returning from Mecca were stranded in the Red Sea on Saturday after refusing to sign an agreement with Egyptian authorities to re-enter the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing.
Among the pilgrims were senior Hamas operatives, several of whom are wanted by Israel, Israel Radio reported. Fearing arrest once they arrived at the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom Crossing, the Hamas members insisted on returning to Gaza via Rafah Crossing, which is not under Israel's control.
The pilgrims had sailed to the port city of Nuweiba on the Sinai Peninsula from Jordan's Aqaba Port but the Egyptians were stopping them from disembarking.
Hamas said there were a total of 1,900 pilgrims who had been waiting since Friday in the Red Sea.
The Palestinians were refusing to accept food or medicines until they received permission to use Rafah and some even threatened to set the ferries on fire.
Hmmm. They're threatening violence if they don't get their way? How novel!
Israel filed a complaint with Cairo after Egypt allowed the Palestinians to pass through Rafah on their way to Mecca and after Defense Minister Ehud Barak's recent visit to Egypt, Israeli officials said the Egyptians agreed to have the pilgrims use Kerem Shalom Crossing on there way back to Gaza.
IDF intelligence estimates released on December 5 indicated that up to a couple of dozen Hamas terrorists were among the so-called pilgrims Egypt allowed out of the Gaza Strip. In recent years, hundreds of Hamas terrorists have traveled abroad to Iran and Lebanon for military training, and officials said it was possible that these terrorists would do the same.
The IDF also fears that if the pilgrims are allowed to return to Gaza through Rafah they might smuggle millions of dollars to Hamas.
Senior Palestinian officials dismissed Israel's concerns, saying the Egyptians could search the pilgrims for smuggled cash.
Yeah, sure they could. And they probably would so they could take a little for themselves before letting the rest through. See, that losing control of the Rafah Crossing thing continues to have really nasty implications for Israel's security. Who could've guessed?
"Israelis raise trivial issues and complicate things to cover up criticism over continued construction of settlements," said Mohammed Sobeih, the Arab League's undersecretary general.
The standoff angered Hamas, who said Egypt has a responsibility to bring the pilgrims back to Gaza as quickly as possible.
Some 5,000 people waving Palestinian and Hamas flags gathered on the Gaza side of the border with Egypt on Saturday and demanded the pilgrims be allowed to enter.
Egyptian riot police are on the scene. With a machine gun. I wonder how this one will turn out?