Palestinians in Gaza had a rare piece of good news earlier this year, when the Egyptian government lifted a travel ban that had prevented Palestinian Muslims from performing Umrah.
This brings to an end almost five years of isolation for Palestinians, who have been unable to use the crucial Rafah crossing to make their way towards Mecca.
The Rafah crossing was closed to Gazans in 2014, after a period of unrest in the region. This left Gaza-based Muslims unable to reach airports in Egypt which would offer a direct route to Jeddah.
The reopening of the Rafah crossing for Umrah pilgrims came amid a series of talks between the Egyptian government, Islamist group Hamas and Palestine’s Fatah Party.
Under the terms of the new agreement, 1,064 pilgrims will be allowed to cross into Egypt en route to Mecca each week until the end of May. The crossing is open to every Muslim, regardless of their age or gender.
However, it is still not easy for Palestinian Muslims to take part in the pilgrimage. Gaza has been subject to an Israeli blockade for many years, and the local economy has suffered enormously, leaving many Gazans in poverty. This makes it difficult for Muslims to fulfil one of the key criteria of Umrah – being able to afford it.
As well as the cost of a plane ticket and accommodation, Gaza-based pilgrims must also provide a signed financial guarantee, which has been reviewed by a legally-recognised guarantor. A deposit of $7,000 is required to ensure their place.
The financial burden has clearly taken its toll. Despite widespread celebrations at the lifting of the ban, just 2,500 pilgrims applied for Umrah within the first month of the agreement. Prior to the ban, approximately 20,000 applications were received every month.
Clearly there is still a lot more to be done to improve access to Umrah for Gaza-based Muslims, but the re-opening of the Rafah crossing is a positive sign of things to come.