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Egypt opens Rafah crossing for Gaza's pilgrims

Gazans begin the journey by road to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to complete the Hajj [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

The first batch of pilgrims from the Gaza Strip have left Gaza via the Rafah crossing and headed to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj.

Hisham Adwan, Palestinian director of the crossing, said that Egypt opened the crossing to allow the pilgrims to reach Cairo International Airport and fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to perform the pilgrimage.

Adwan noted that 800 pilgrims left Gaza and they would be flying to Saudi Arabia on three planes.

He added that the Palestinian border and crossing committee made the necessary arrangements and preparations for the pilgrims' travel from Gaza to Saudi Arabia via the Rafah crossing.

Some 2,500 pilgrims from the Gaza Strip are set to travel to Saudi Arabic over the next four days.

Read: Hajj pilgrims depart for Saudi Arabia

The Rafah crossing has been closed for nearly 160 days preventing Gazans from travelling in and out of the besieged enclave for humanitarian purposes, while those stuck on the Egyptian side have not been allowed to return to Gaza.

The Hajj – a major tenet of Islam to cleanse sins and bring worshippers closer to God – will start later this month. More than two million pilgrims are expected to perform the ritual this year.

Blockaded by Israel — by air, land and sea — since 2007, the Gaza Strip has seven border crossings linking it to the outside world.

Six of these are controlled by Israel, while the seventh — the Rafah crossing — is controlled by Egypt, which keeps it tightly sealed for the most part since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 military coup.

Israel sealed four of its commercial crossings with Gaza in June 2007 after Palestinian group Hamas wrested control of the strip from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

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