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474 Palestinian pilgrims return to Gaza on first day of border crossing opening

Sept. 18, 2016 5:02 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 25, 2016 7:13 P.M.)
CAIRO (Ma’an) -- Egyptian authorities closed the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the besieged Gaza Strip early on Sunday morning, after opening the crossing to allow the return of Palestinian pilgrims who had traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj.

An Egyptian security source at Rafah told Ma’an that 474 Palestinian pilgrims had crossed into the Gaza Strip since Saturday night.

Egypt will reopen the Rafah crossing on Wednesday for three days to facilitate the return of the rest of Palestinian pilgrims, the security source added.

Eid al-Adha, or the "Festival of Sacrifice," is a Muslim holiday marking the end of the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The four-day holiday seeks to honor Prophet Abraham's sacrifice of his son Ishmael as a duty to God.

Palestinians in Gaza must receive permission from the Egyptian government to go on the Hajj pilgrimage, as the airport in Cairo is the only avenue Gazans have to travel abroad.

Egypt has upheld an Israeli military blockade on the Gaza Strip for the majority of the past three years, since the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and the rise to power of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt.

While the Egyptian border has remained the main lifeline for Gazans to the outside world, Egyptian authorities have slowly sealed off movement through the border since Morsi was toppled by the Egyptian army.

Due to the constraints on Palestinian movement through the crossing, most Palestinians are commonly barred from leaving or entering the Gaza Strip, sometimes for months at a time, as the crossing is only periodically opened by Egyptian authorities, stranding Palestinians on both sides of the crossing during closures.

In 2015, the Rafah crossing was closed for 344 days. The crossing has been reopened on a more regular basis in 2016.

Egyptian authorities opened the crossing for three days in August in order to facilitate the passage of Hajj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, as some 2,008 Gazans received visas to use the Cairo airport for international travel.

The nearly nine-year Israeli blockade has plunged the Gaza Strip’s more than 1.8 million Palestinians into poverty. The destruction from three Israeli offensives over the past six years and slow reconstruction due to the blockade led the UN in September to warn that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” by 2020.
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