RAMALLAH: Walid Ghuneim, 59, from Bethlehem on the West Bank, was overwhelmed with joy when a lottery system chose him and his wife to perform Hajj four years ago.
However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of his Hajj performance, and he kept waiting until his name was chosen this year among 1,900 citizens of the West Bank.
Ghuneim, a building materials trader, did not sleep the night of his journey to Hajj, as his six sons, daughters, and their sons came to bid him farewell, with his brothers, sisters, relatives and friends also seeing him off.
In the early hours of the dawn, he and his wife were the first to arrive at the meeting point of pilgrims in Bethlehem set by the Hajj company. They took the bus to Jericho Crossing and then crossed the Israeli bridge linking the West Bank and Jordan on its way with 52 other passengers to Madinah, the first stop of the three-week pilgrimage.
“I did not sleep last night, and I am delighted and eager to see and visit the Prophet’s Mosque and the Holy Mosque in Makkah and perform Hajj with my wife,” Ghuneim, who is visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in his life, told Arab News.
“All my bus colleagues and I are pleased with this great journey to perform Hajj,” he added.
Sameh Jbara, director of Palestinian Hajj and Umrah companies, told Arab News that the Saudi authorities had allowed 1,900 pilgrims from the West Bank and 600 from the Gaza Strip to perform the Hajj this year — after a brief hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic — which constitutes 45 percent of the previous allocation for Palestinians before the outbreak.
The costs of Hajj amount to $3,920 (SR14,700) per person, as Palestinian sources told Arab News that there was a slight increase in costs associated with Hajj for this year.
Twenty qualified companies are operating in the West Bank to transport pilgrims. They manage their logistics during the Hajj period, while Palestinian pilgrims spend 21 trips back and forth and performing Hajj, spending the first four days of it in Madinah before heading to Makkah, while Palestinian pilgrims travel by buses from the West Bank via Israel and Jordan, through to Saudi Arabia, on a trip that takes 24 hours to Madinah.
The Palestinian Minister of Awqaf Hatem Al-Bakri told Arab News that his ministry submitted a request to the Saudi authorities to increase Palestine’s quota of pilgrims and received a promise that if there were an increase, it would be a small percentage.
“The arrangements and procedures for this year’s pilgrimage were carried out in full coordination and cooperation between the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and us according to the protocols signed in this regard,” the minister said, adding: “We have taken into account the health protocols required by our brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and they are fully compatible with the protocols of the World Health Organization.”
The Hajj mission is accompanied by an administrative, media, health and security delegation of 650 people.
Ibrahim Melhem, the spokesperson of the Palestinian government, told Arab News that the Palestinian government had been in cooperation with the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for several months to ensure the necessary arrangements. He said that the Saudi authorities were highly organized and had conducted early planning for hotels, buses transporting pilgrims, and moving between the rites of Hajj.
“The country with the most experience in crowd management is Saudi Arabia,” Melhem told Arab News.