Over Israel’s objection, Egypt allowed hundreds of stranded Palestinian pilgrims en route home from Mecca to return to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday without permitting Israeli authorities to screen them for smuggled cash or weapons.
The decision ended a five-day standoff and drew a sharp protest from Israeli officials. The pilgrims, who had completed the Muslim hajj ritual in Saudi Arabia, got stuck in Egypt last weekend when the Cairo government said they would have to pass through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing.
Egypt relented, allowing passage through the Rafah terminal on its border with Gaza, after pilgrims rioted in border camps set up for them and threatened a hunger strike. Pilgrims who are leaders of the Hamas movement, which rules Gaza and advocates Israel’s destruction, were involved in the protest.
Egyptian security officials told the Associated Press that 2,152 pilgrims were being allowed to return to Gaza.
Israeli officials said they feared that some of the travelers were carrying weapons or large sums of cash for Gaza’s Hamas leaders, who are under an Israeli blockade. Israel, like the United States, considers Hamas a terrorist group.
Egypt has cooperated with the blockade by keeping its Rafah border terminal closed. It made an exception to allow Mecca-bound pilgrims to leave Gaza last month.
The standoff over the returning pilgrims put Egypt in an uncomfortable position in the eyes of its Arab neighbors, by calling attention to its cooperation with Israel in keeping Gaza isolated.
Israeli officials said Egypt’s decision violated an understanding reached last week between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Israel also is concerned that Egypt isn’t doing enough to stop Palestinian arms-smuggling into Gaza.
Israeli forces Wednesday killed six Palestinian militants, including three Hamas members, in a clash near Gaza City. The Israeli operation, conducted by ground troops and aircraft, was part of an effort to wipe out militant groups that fire homemade rockets from Gaza at Israeli communities just over the border.
Meanwhile, Israel is holding peace talks with the more moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank under a November agreement with President Bush, who arrives in Jerusalem next week to check on their progress.
Israeli officials said the ambush killings of two off-duty Israeli soldiers who were hiking in the West Bank on Friday raised questions about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ promise to control terrorism and could affect the peace talks.
Israeli officials said two gunmen arrested in the attack by Palestinian security officials are members of Abbas’ Fatah movement and that one of them is a member of his security forces.
Palestinian officials, who condemned the assault, said both men worked for the Palestinian Authority but belonged to no faction. The officials portrayed the attack as a common crime, saying the motive was to seize and sell the soldiers’ weapons.
Barak told Israel Radio that Israel would hold the Palestinian leadership to its promise to prosecute the two suspects.
“These people need to rot in jail until their last days,” Barak said.
Riad Malki, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister, said Israel was trying to use the attack to delay removing West Bank roadblocks and security checkpoints that limit Palestinians’ movement.
Times special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.