mahihaber Gazans give thanks as Egypt opens border to Umrah pilgrims - Mahihaber

Gazans give thanks as Egypt opens border to Umrah pilgrims

For more than four years, Palestinians in Gaza have been unable to perform the Umrah pilgrimage rituals in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca.

But Palestinians have now been informed by Egyptian authorities that starting from March this year, hundreds of pilgrims will be allowed to travel via the Rafah terminal.

Awad Abu Madkour heads an association of owners of 76 pilgrimage and travel agencies in Gaza City.

The travel ban was been imposed in 2014, in the aftermath of bloody violence on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Abu Madkour told The New Arab. From now on, all Palestinians - men and women of all ages - will be allowed to travel via the Rafah crossing.

The closing of the Rafah crossing into Egypt heightened the Israel-imposed siege of Gaza, and, in addition to the multiple healthcare, energy, food and trade crises the blockade has caused, travel agencies have lost revenues of more than $4 million, according to Abu Madkour.

"In 2012, 2013 and 2014, we used to receive large numbers of applications for the Umrah pilgrimage from local residents," he said. "During those years, the situation was much better, For example, government employees of both the Gaza- and the Ramallah-based government received full salaries. Also, the construction process was going on and labourers of all types were working.

"Now, the situation is getting worse and people seem worried about the future. That's what I myself have noticed."

Just 2,500 people have so far applied for this year's Umrah pilgrimage, compared with about 20,000 in 2012.

At the Mushtaha travel agency in Gaza city, one of the largest in the coastal territory, Hadi Nabrees, a 35-year-old computer engineer and father of one daughter, told The New Arab that he hopes to reach out his sister, who lives in the United Arab Emirates, if he manages to make it to Mecca for the Umrah.

"Umrah has two sides, tourist and religious," he said. "Actually, I look forward to reaching out to my relatives in the United Arab Emirates. We hope that all will go well, in terms of the travel arrangements and prices."

The Gaza Strip has been subject to many travel restrictions since 2007, when Israel imposed a siege on the region. Ever since, the Rafah crossing into Egypt has been the main route for Gaza to the outside world. Yet, Egypt has frequently closed the terminal, allowing only a few categories of travellers from Gaza - students, medical patients with overseas treatment arranged and holders of residency permits of nearby Arab countries.

Waseem Mushtaha, director of the Mushtaha travel agency, told The New Arab that he and other travel agencies were solely and strictly responsible for the travel and return to Gaza of all pilgrims within a period of 14 days. His agency has deposited a sum of 257,000 Saudi Riyals as a financial guarantee with the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, in case of any breach.

"Before [a person] wants to go on the Umrah, they should provide me with a certified copy of their host's residency permit, an address and a land phone number - not a cellular one that can be turned off," he said.

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