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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 January 2008, 19:56 GMT
Israeli anger over Gaza crossing
A Palestinian pilgrim celebrates after crossing into the Gaza Strip (02/01/08)
Palestinian pilgrims celebrated after crossing into the Gaza Strip
Israel has criticised Egypt's decision to allow 2,150 Palestinian pilgrims who had been stranded in the country to cross back into the Gaza Strip.

The pilgrims, including senior Hamas members, were returning from Mecca.

Egypt originally denied them permission to travel through its main border crossing with Gaza at Rafah, insisting they use an Israeli-run post instead.

Israeli officials expressed concern that some of the group could be trying to smuggle money to Hamas.

The pilgrims had been stuck in Egypt for five days before it was decided to allow them directly into Gaza through Rafah, bypassing Israel.

"It is very important for Israel to insist - and stand firm on its right to do so - that the border between Egypt-Sinai and the Strip be closed and that neither terrorists nor weapons get through," Israel's Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told Channel Ten television.

An aide to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt's decision went against a previous agreement that the pilgrims would enter Gaza through Israel's Kerem Shalom terminal.

'Humanitarian situation'

Earlier this week, hundreds of the stranded pilgrims started fires in protest at a decision by the Egyptian authorities to move them to a temporary camp.

Map showing border crossings

Two elderly women died of natural causes during the stalemate, says the BBC's Aleem Maqbool in Ramallah.

"There was a tough humanitarian situation that we were facing here and that no one really wanted to see exacerbated," an Egyptian foreign ministry official said.

Israel had allowed the pilgrims to leave Gaza through the Rafah border-post in early December.

The Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt have been trying to isolate Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory by force in June.

Analysts say the dispute has been embarrassing for Egypt, which does not want to be seen to be increasing the misery of Gaza residents.

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