Gazan pilgrims trapped in war zone as Hajj season is set to begin

Some Palestinians have waited decades to take part in pilgrimage, but are now unable to

Hajj pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque in Makkah last year. Reuters
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Gazan Ahmad Al Kahlout is 68 and has been waiting for decades to perform Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Every year, he entered his name in the Hajj draw. But despite being chosen this year, he may not be able to take in the pilgrimage because of the war in Gaza and Israel's move to close the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

“I have been waiting for over 20 years for my name to come up in the Hajj lottery. Every year or whenever they announced a draw, I would apply,” Mr Al Kahlout told The National.

“My name was chosen for the second year, which is this year. This means I was supposed to have travelled with the pilgrims to the holy lands by now, but the war destroyed everything and deprived my wife and I of Hajj."

His dream was to perform the pilgrimage while he was healthy enough and to enjoy the Hajj rituals. He and his wife saved long and hard for the journey. Now, he mourns his lost opportunity.

“Every time I hear news about pilgrims arriving from all over the world in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the Hajj season, I feel very sad and think to myself whether we will live long enough to experience it in the coming years," he said.

Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform the prilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Pilgrims travel to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

This year, Hajj is taking place in mid-June. While Hajj officially takes five to six days, many pilgrims travel weeks in advance.

Mr Al Kahlout called for provisions to be made for Gazan pilgrims despite the war. “Human rights and religious institutions worldwide are supposed to ensure freedom of worship,” he said.

Nearly 40 per cent of all pilgrims from Palestine come from Gaza, Ikrami Al Madlal, director of the media department at the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, told The National.

This year, 2,508 Gazans have registered as pilgrims out of an estimated 6,600 Palestinians who intend to travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, 2,000 men and women from the occupied West Bank have travelled to Jordan on 69 buses, on their way to Saudi Arabia, while another 1,200 people will fly to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has also announced the kingdom will host 1,000 pilgrims from the families of killed, jailed or wounded Palestinians. It was not clear whether these Palestinians would be travelling to Hajj from within Gaza and the West Bank, or elsewhere in the region.

“Usually around this time of the year, the ministry would be finalising all the procedures and requirements for the departure of pilgrims from Gaza,” Mr Al Madlal said.

The process would begin by announcing the names of this year's pilgrims from Gaza, taking payments, signing contracts for transport of pilgrims from Gaza into Egypt and then from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

Departures were scheduled to take place between 22nd and 25th days of Dhu Al Qida, coinciding with May 30 to June 2.

But Israel's war in Gaza has destroyed the ministry's headquarters in the enclave and disrupted preparations by pilgrims there.

“Usually, at this time of the year, our work would be continuing – to sort out travel plans for pilgrims – even for some who had been waiting for more than 10 years for their turn to go. But we have been unable to make any progress on that front,” Mr Al Madlal said.

“We have urged and continue to urge our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to pressure Israel to open the Rafah crossing and allow Gaza’s residents to perform Hajj this year."

The ministry will ensure that pilgrims who were unable to travel this year are able to take part in Hajj next year, Mr Al Madlal added.

Updated: June 03, 2024, 7:47 PM