Millions of Muslims are currently in Mecca to fulfill one of the fundamental pillars of Islam, the hajj, as part of the Eid al-Adha celebration. Arab Israelis also participate in this rite, but their status is unique, which complicates the process of their arrival in the Islamic holy city. Since Saudi Arabia does not recognize the State of Israel, the entry of these pilgrims is not possible with an Israeli passport, and so the arrangements involved in their arrival are up to the goodwill of Jordan.
However, there has been a significant change this year. For the first time, it has become possible for the faithful from Israel to fly from Ben Gurion Airport to Jeddah via Jordan. All in all, 770 pilgrims were allowed to leave for Saudi Arabia on this route — about a third of the 2014 quota of 3,651 set by Saudi authorities for Arab Israelis.
The preparations for the hajj start a long time before the journey begins. The requests for this year’s holiday were submitted to special Jordanian commissions by the end of 2013, through local “hajj committees” that are active in the Arab sector. Priority of exit permits is for those who have reached the age of 35 and have not yet visited Mecca. The older an applicant, the higher he is on the priority list. Tayibe resident Hajj Mustafa Azzam, who heads the delegation of pilgrims from Israel, told Al-Monitor that the chances of receiving an exit permit to Mecca twice in a lifetime are “slim, if totally nonexistent, except in very unusual cases.” Thousands of Arab Israelis who request to perform hajj every year are denied exit permits.
For the fortunate who receive an exit permit, the round trip journey to the Kaaba — the holy structure found in Mecca — can last from two weeks to a month. The Saudi authorities invest a great deal in the development of hajj tourism, for — among other reasons — because this event brings in billions of dollars. The Saudis invest not just in developing the infrastructure to absorb the millions of faithful. A Tayibe businessman, Yusuf Nashad, who made the pilgrimage two years ago, said that upon arrival in Mecca, everyone received a personal medical kit, including first aid equipment and pain relievers, a token gift that made them feel that the hosts care about them.
The pilgrimage is not cheap, and certainly not for Arab Israelis. One of the primary beneficiaries of the journey of Arab Israeli pilgrims to the Islamic holy city is Jordan. The kingdom, which does not have many revenue streams, has an unofficial monopoly on organizing the administrative and logistical apparatus to transport the pilgrims from Israel. Bus companies, airlines, hotels and other hospitality services in Jordan earn a good living from the Israelis. Of course, the government treasury also profits. For instance, to obtain a temporary Jordanian passport, which enables entry to Saudi territory, the kingdom charges each Israeli 50 Jordanian dinars (about $70). Along with additional taxes that Jordan collects, such as the “services fee,” fees for transporting and unloading luggage, insurance and more, the kingdom receives about 120 dinars (about $170) from each tourist or pilgrim.
Past attempts to break the Jordanian monopoly in this field have failed. A source from the Arab sector told Al-Monitor that in the last year an entrepreneur from one of the Triangle towns tried to organize a private bus for pilgrims through Jordan without using the services of the Jordanian companies, to save on costs. This bus, however, did not receive an entry permit from the Jordanians.
Jordan claims that the transportation of pilgrims from the Israeli border to Saudi Arabia is granted to local companies after the publication of a tender by the authorities. According to the Jordanians, there is a special oversight over the quality of services the travelers receive, where one of the conditions for companies interested in participating in the bid is a modern bus fleet.
Pilgrims who have traveled through Jordan in the past, which for most involves an arduous journey that could take up to 30 hours by bus, tell of “tricks” that the Jordanians have developed to get a few more dinars from the Israelis. For instance, in the evening hours, travelers may be told that their bus has broken down or that there are problems at the border, and so they have to stay the night in the capital, Amman. Even those who choose to fly to Jeddah from Amman have to stay the night in one of the hotels in Amman before their connecting flight.
The Jordanian monopoly on the hajj has caused on several occasions consternation in the Arab sector. A commission of investigation of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel studied the issue in 2011 and arrived at a surprising finding: There is no legal document on record that establishes the role of Jordan in organizing the hajj travel arrangements for Arab Israelis. According to Azzam, Jordan assumed patronage over pilgrims from Israel in 1978 after King Hussein received backing for this move from the Arab League. In any case, according to the summary of the committee's report, Jordan runs the show “even though its decisions do not always accord with the needs of the pilgrims.”
The report written three years ago has not brought relief to one of the most pressing problems for pilgrims from Israel: the high price of fulfilling the fifth pillar of Islam. The local hajj committees publish the prices set by the Jordanians. The price, which is non-negotiable, includes the cost of the trip by land or air as well as the cost of accommodation in apartments or hotels.
There is a varied offering of options and prices. The closer the hotel room is to the Kaaba, the higher its price. The following are some of the prices of 14-day packages offered to pilgrims this year:
- The cheapest and most popular package: travel by bus and a room in an apartment in Mecca with 4-6 roommates, at a distance of no more than 1,500 meters (just under a mile) from the Kaaba, with breakfast and dinner: $2,870.
- A flight from Amman and a room in Mecca with 4-6 roommates: $3,330.
- A flight from Ben Gurion Airport and a room in Mecca with 4-6 roommates: $3,585.
- The most expensive package offered: a flight from Ben Gurion Airport and a double room close to the Kaaba: $6,075.
The trip's package price does not reflect the total cost per pilgrim to Mecca — general expenses, especially shopping trips to the local markets on this once in a lifetime trip, will have to be taken into account also.
The option to perform hajj on a direct flight from Israel should not be discounted. Indubitably, a business motive was behind this decision; its timing is not a coincidence, and it reflects the changing reality of the Middle East, where the moderate Arab nations — starting with Saudi Arabia — share common interests with Israel on the geopolitical front.
Hajj Azzam sums it up by saying that from the standpoint of the pilgrims, this move raises hope that in the future travel from Israel to Saudi Arabia will be easier and will save pilgrims many hours on the road in what is now an arduous journey.