GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — With the war-battered Gaza Strip's borders closed, thousands of people have been shut out of a Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia because they cannot leave the sealed territory.
Some 7,500 Gazans have sought to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the minor umrah pilgrimage but have been turned away because Egypt restricts movement in and out of the coastal enclave.
Egypt has shut its border with the Gaza Strip since Oct. 24, citing security concerns in its northern Sinai Peninsula. It has opened it only intermittently for students and patients seeking medical care. Israel also heavily restricts exit from the territory.
The closure is affecting a population already disaffected by a war against Israel last summer that destroyed thousands of homes and has displaced tens of thousands of people.
"I wait hour by hour. We feel every day that passes without leaving as though it's a year," said Fares Hayek, 80, who is among those waiting to make the pilgrimage. He applied in November along with his wife, children and grandchildren.
Travel agents who facilitate the yearly pilgrimage say they've taken a hit from the closed borders. Awad Abu Mazkour, the head of a group that represents travel agents, said agents in Gaza are losing some $140,000 in license fees, bank guarantees and hotel bookings each month because of the closed crossing.
One agent, Eid Hnaif, said he has booked a 35-room hotel in Saudi Arabia for his clients that they may never reach.
"We lost half of the season and this affected us negatively. I'm unable to pay my eight employees for the second month and can't terminate their services because I'm not sure if the crossing will open or not," said Hnaif, who keeps his clients' passports in a black sports bag in his Gaza City office, waiting for word on whether they will travel.
Some 50,000 Gazans typically travel for the umrah each year, and travelers continued to leave even during last year's war between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers. But since the pilgrimage season began in November, no one has been able to leave, and travel agents have stopped taking orders.
Egypt sealed the border following an October ambush by Islamic militants that killed 31 Egyptian soldiers. Disgruntled residents have staged protests and sit-ins, calling on the Palestinian and Egyptian leadership to resolve the situation.
An Egyptian security official said that the closure is upon orders from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who said he will only open the border if it is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Despite an agreement last year to form a Palestinian unity government, Hamas remains in control of Gaza and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority wields little influence over the coastal strip.
An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said an envoy from the Palestinian Authority was in Egypt to discuss the issue. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Palestinian officials confirmed that President Mahmoud Abbas dispatched an envoy to Cairo.
Mahmoud Habash, an adviser to on religious affairs, blamed the pilgrims delay on the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has accused militants of using Gaza for their operations.
"We agreed with the Egyptians that the first priority is the safety of the travelers and the safety of the Egyptian teams at the border crossing, and when the safety conditions permit, there will be no problem for them to go," he said.
Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, allows only small numbers of Palestinians to leave Gaza, mostly for humanitarian cases. Cogat, the branch of the defense ministry that oversees border policy with Gaza, said it has not received any requests from the pilgrims.