CAIRO, Egypt – A senior Hamas official among thousands of Palestinian pilgrims stranded in Egypt threatened Tuesday the group would begin a hunger strike unless they be allowed to return to the Gaza Strip through a border crossing not controlled by Israel.
Ayman Taha's threat came a day after some of the pilgrims housed in temporary shelters in northern Sinai burned mattresses and broke windows, protesting Egypt's refusal to let them enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing.
Hamas officials among the more than 3,000 pilgrims who recently completed the hajj in Saudi Arabia, fear they will be arrested if they return through the Israeli-controlled entrance at Aouja, known as Kerem Shalom in Israel.
Taha said Tuesday that he has been negotiating with Egyptian officials, who he claimed have finally agreed to let the Palestinians through Rafah.
"We received promises from the Egyptians that they are letting us through Rafah, otherwise we will start a hunger strike," he said, speaking on the telephone from the southern Sinai port city of Nuweiba.
Egyptian officials declined to comment Taha's claim. They have said they are doing everything they can to resolve the crisis.
Israel fears that if the pilgrims return using the Rafah crossing, Hamas militants might get through and sympathizers could smuggle cash to the radical Islamic group, which seized control of Gaza in June.
The standoff began Saturday when the pilgrims arrived by ferry from Jordan, landing in the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. It's the latest outbreak of tensions over efforts by Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to isolate Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Most of the pilgrims are believed to be ordinary citizens, but there are at least 10 well-known Hamas figures among them, including Taha and Khalil al-Haya.
On Sunday, the Egyptian government bused more than more than 1,000 of the pilgrims from Nuweiba to 11 shelters near the northern Sinai town of el-Arish, to await until the crisis is resolved. Taha said Tuesday the 2,000 still in Nuweiba would make the journey the following day.
A Palestinian woman died of a heart attack during angry protests Monday, as pilgrims smashed windows and set fire to several mattresses and blankets in their rooms.
The mood among them was still defiant Tuesday.
"How can we hand ourselves in to the Israelis?" said Mohammed Darwish, as the 32-year-old Palestinian government employee sat in one of the temporary shelters near el-Arish. "Our demand is very legitimate and they can search us if they have any concerns."
Darwish performed the hajj with his wife, mother and sister, leaving his two sons and daughters at home in the Gaza Strip.
"They phone me everyday and ask me when we will be back and I have no answer," he added.
Many of the pilgrims have protested by refusing to get off the buses that drove them from Nuweiba to el-Arish.
"I sleep in the bus. I won't sleep in their shelters," said 60-year-old Maha al-Kara. "I would prefer we die here rather than hand our sons over to the Israelis."
Egypt has come under increasing criticism from Israel, which accuses it of not doing enough to stop arms and money smuggling into Gaza. Cairo is also sensitive to claims it is helping worsen the humanitarian situation in impoverished Gaza.
Egypt closed the Rafah crossing after Hamas seized Gaza. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Sunday the problems with using Rafah stem from the fact that European monitors — deployed under a U.S.-brokered deal but who fled with the Hamas takeover — were no longer at the crossing.
On Tuesday, Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awwad, said the pilgrims' plight has weighed heavily on the president's mind and that authorities hoped for a speedy resolution.
Rafah's closure has also stranded hundreds of Palestinians on their way back from studies or medical treatment abroad. Egypt has since allowed many to return by crossing through Israeli territory instead — the route Israel wants the pilgrims to also take.
On Tuesday, an Israel official said some 200 of those stranded returnees have crossed back to their homes in the Gaza Strip and more are expected to follow.
The Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not giving an official statement, said 100 crossed the frontier from Egypt into Israel and on to Gaza on Tuesday, following the same number the day before.