EL-ARISH, Egypt, (AP) – More than a thousand Palestinian pilgrims set fire on Monday to temporary camps set up by the Egyptian government to house them until a dispute over how they will return to the Gaza Strip is resolved.
The Palestinians arrived by bus at 11 temporary camps in the Sinai outside the Mediterranean coastal city of el-Arish on Sunday but refused to occupy them, protesting Egypt’s attempts to have them return to Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Aouja border crossing.
As they rampaged Monday, the pilgrims shouted angry slogans against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his government for not allowing them to cross into Gaza through Rafah, where Israel has no control.
A large number of riot police responded by surrounding the pilgrims and securing the area, as firefighters attempted to put out the blaze. Several Palestinian women fainted from the fire’s heavy black smoke and were taken to El-Arish hospital.
The pilgrims include at least 10 well-known figures from the radical Islamic group Hamas — including Khalil al-Haya, a leader of the group — who fear Israel will arrest them if they cross through Aouja.
Israel, in turn, fears that if the pilgrims are allowed to return to Gaza through Rafah Hamas militants might get through and sympathizers could smuggle cash to Hamas in Gaza.
The standoff is the latest outbreak of tensions over efforts by Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to isolate the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over the tiny coastal strip in June.
Egypt has kept its Rafah border crossing with Gaza closed, a move seen as supporting Hamas’ rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Egypt is also sensitive over criticism that it is helping worsen the humanitarian situation in impoverished Gaza.
At the same time, Egypt has come under increasing criticism from Israel, which accuses it of not doing enough to stop the smuggling of weapons and money through Sinai tunnels into Gaza. Egypt has angrily denied the accusations, insisting it is doing all it can.
The standoff over the pilgrims began Saturday, when some 3,060 Palestinians returning from the hajj in Saudi Arabia arrived by ferry at the Egyptian Red Sea port of Nuweiba in southern Sinai.
Egypt transported 1,166 of the Palestinians to El-Arish by bus Sunday, but they refused to leave the vehicles and launched a protest demanding to be allowed back to Gaza immediately. The nearly 1,900 Palestinians waiting in Nuweiba were also scheduled to be brought to el-Arish.
Hundreds of Egyptian security forces surrounded the buses, as officials negotiated with the pilgrims, trying to convince them to move into the camps meant to house them until the dispute is resolved.
Egypt’s actions have angered Hamas officials and supporters in Gaza, who say Cairo has a moral obligation to allow the pilgrims to return as quickly as possible.
Some 7,000 demonstrators gathered at the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing Saturday waving Palestinian and Hamas flags and demanding the pilgrims be allowed to enter.
Hamas has accused Abbas’ West Bank-based government of pressuring Egypt to conform with Israeli and American demands.
Israeli defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said Sunday that Israel’s policy remains that the pilgrims must return to Gaza through the Aouja crossing, known in Israel as Kerem Shalom.
Mubarak said Sunday that his government was doing everything it could to resolve the crisis, indicating the problem with using Rafah was that European monitors are no longer in place at the crossing.
Under a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the crossing was operated by Egypt and the Palestinians, with EU monitors deployed on the Palestinian side. During the Hamas takeover, the European monitors fled and Hamas militiamen took control of the terminal.
Egypt allowed pilgrims from Gaza to travel to Saudi Arabia across its territory earlier this month, the first time Egypt relaxed its closure of the Rafah crossing.