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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 December 2007, 14:57 GMT
Israel lets Gazans leave for Hajj
Pilgrims pray in Mecca on 23 December 2006
Able-bodied Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage once
Almost 500 Palestinians have been allowed to leave the Gaza Strip to make the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Israel has confirmed.

The Palestinians left Gaza on Sunday by the Erez checkpoint, controlled by Israel and usually closed to civilians.

The 491 pilgrims were taken by bus to the West Bank, before heading to Jordan and then a flight to Saudi Arabia.

Israel described the decision to allow the group to make the pilgrimage as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians.

A second group of roughly the same number is due to leave Gaza on Monday, said Ashraf al-Ajrami, Palestinian Minister for Prisoners' Affairs.

Israel's move follows Egypt's decision to allow 700 pilgrims out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing last week.

In another move described as a goodwill gesture Israel also recently freed hundreds of Palestinian held prisoner in Israel.

Faith and freedom

Making the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, is one of the core requirements of the Islamic faith.

Pilgrims at the Kaaba, Mecca (2006)
Mecca is crowded and spectacular during the Hajj

An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza are under Israel's tight border controls.

Their freedom of movement has been regularly restricted since Israel pulled its settlers and troops out of the territory in 2005.

Controls were tightened after the Hamas militant group took over Gaza this year, ousting the Fatah faction.

Hamas denies Israel's right to exist.

Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, runs the Palestinian Authority and is engaged in tentative peace negotiations with Israel.



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