RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Hamas Islamists called on Egypt on Saturday to open its shuttered border crossing with the Gaza Strip to let more than 2,000 Palestinians return to their Gaza homes from the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, is demanding that Egypt reopen the Rafah crossing to allow the pilgrims to pass directly into the coastal territory rather than force them to pass through Israeli border posts first.
Hamas fears Israel will arrest militants among the pilgrims.
Hamas officials estimated that 2,200 Gaza pilgrims were stranded on ships at an Egyptian port on the Red Sea.
Israel believes some of the militants may be carrying money for Hamas and other groups.
Thousands of Palestinians, including family members of those who are stranded in Egypt, held a rally in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, calling on Egypt to allow the pilgrims to return.
“We are aware of the Israeli and American pressures on Egypt, and we urge Egypt to reject these pressures and to allow the pilgrims a safe return through Rafah,” Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told a news conference.
Hamas said a 62-year-old woman who fell ill died aboard one of the ships, which have been stranded for a second day.
Abu Zuhri said the Gaza pilgrims have rejected Egyptian proposal that they agree to return through Israeli-controlled crossings.
Egyptian officials had no immediate comment.
Israel and the United States are pressing Egypt to do more to prevent the smuggling of guns, explosives and funds into the Gaza Strip.
Egypt has rejected Israeli complaints about the smuggling, accusing Israel of trying to distract attention from Jewish settlement building that has bogged down renewed peace talks.
In mid-December, Israel allowed hundreds of Palestinians from Gaza to cross Israeli territory on their way to the annual haj pilgrimage. Earlier in the month, about 2,200 pilgrims heading for Mecca crossed from Gaza into Egypt through Rafah.
Israel has tightened its military and economic cordon of the Gaza Strip since the Islamist group seized control of the territory in June.