JERUSALEM (May. 31)
Roughly 200 Libyan Moslems arrived here Monday on a pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites, an unprecedented trip by citizens of a country that has repeatedly declared itself to be an implacable foe of Israel.
The trip has raised hopes that relations between the two countries, formally at war, will improve.
The pilgrims entered Jerusalem during the Moslem observance of Id al-Adha, the three-day Feast of the Sacrifice.
Tourism Minister Uzi Baram greeted the Libyans at the border crossing into Israel from Egypt, after they had driven thousands of miles across the desert from Libya.
The group’s five-day trip is being sponsored by Ziara International, a company owned by Israeli businessman Ya’acov Nimrodi.
Nimrodi worked to organize the visit following the recent and startling declaration by Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, known for his hostility to Israel and the West and his support of terrorist groups, that he would allow such a pilgrimage to occur.
Gadhafi also pledged recently to invite Jewish leaders, including some from Israel, to a major interfaith conference in his country and to implement a law compensating Italians and Jews who left their property behind in Libya when they fled or were expelled from the country after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Gadhafi’s foreign minister has reportedly indicated that Libya is ready to recognize and make peace with Israel.
These stunning reversals are being seen here as a signal by Gadhafi to the West, particularly the United States, that he wants to improve relations and ease the isolation caused by his refusal to extradite the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
They are also being seen as consistent with the trend toward a de facto recognition of Israel as part of the Middle East region.
One of the pilgrims said the group decided to come to Israel because its plans to travel to Mecca were foiled by Saudi Arabian restrictions on Libyans wanting to make the journey.
Nimrodi said he believed it would be the first of many such pilgrimages, while Baram cautioned it was too soon to tell.
A POSITIVE BUT CAUTIOUS RESPONSE
Raffaello Fellah, president of the World Association of Jews from Libya, also helped arrange the visit and was in Jerusalem to meet the Moslem pilgrims.
“I am very pleased that Col. Gadhafi has followed through on his intention, which he disclosed to me during our two-hour meeting last February, to permit citizens of his country to visit Moslem holy places in Jerusalem,” he said.
“Col. Gadhafi made a number of other statements to me indicating an evolution in his thinking and an apparent desire to seek reconciliation with the West. How should the Jewish world respond? With caution obviously, but in a positive way,” Fellah said.
In New York, Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, said Libya’s move was welcome, but stressed that the true test of Gadhafi’s intentions is whether or not he is willing to extradite to the United States the two Libyans accused of the Pan Am terrorist bombing.