JERUSALEM (Jun. 18)
Arab citizens of Israel will be able to make the traditional pilgrimage to the Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia next November, for the first time since Israel’s independence, it was announced here today. Approval for the pilgrimage, known as the Haj, was granted after top level discussions by senior officials of various ministries who decided that the welfare of Israel’s Arab population, including their religious rights, outweighed the political difficulties involved. Premier Menachem Begin agreed.
Until recently, Saudi Arabia banned Israeli Arabs from entering its territory. But a small group of Moslem clergy from Israel was permitted to go to Mecca last year, opening the way for a mass pilgrimage. Although Israel Arabs, mostly Moslem, number more than 500,000, no more than 10,000 at most are expected to make the Haj next fall. The $1400 cost of the trip is the major deterrent.
They will travel on laissez-passers issued by the Interior Ministry similar to those issued to residents of the occupied territories for trips to Arab countries. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Jordan will honor Israeli passports. The pilgrims will obtain Saudi visas in Amman enroute to Mecca. The transit through Jordan posed a problem since Jordan has no dealings with Israeli civil bodies. Arrangements for the trip were made through the offices of the Moslem High Council in East Jerusalem which has to approve all applications for the Haj.
Some questions arose as to whether the Jordanian authorities would allow pilgrims they regard as too “pro-Israel” to pass through their territory. The Jordanians indicated, however, that they regarded the matter as purely religious without political overtones.