Key features of Hajj 2023 – what’s new?

News Network
June 26, 2023

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Jeddah, June 26: Saudi Arabia has developed and introduced several services for the first time for the pilgrims participating in Hajj 2023 to help them perform the rituals with ease and comfort.

Hajj services offered this season were distinguished for keeping pace with the developments taking place in the world that enhance the facilitation of life, such as artificial intelligence and others.

The most awaited announcement by Muslims around the world this season was the lifting of restrictions imposed three years ago to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an announcement earlier, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah revealed that the Hajj this year 2023 would be without conditions or restrictions.

"Saudi Arabia will welcome pilgrims to perform Hajj this year in the same numbers as before the COVID pandemic," Dr. Al-Rabiah confirmed.

Following the lifting of restrictions, Saudi Arabia announced that it would receive more than 2 million Hajj pilgrims from 160 countries. The number of Umrah performers this year increased by 30% compared to 1440 AH.

Moreover, this year the Kingdom allowed Hajj missions from around the world to make contracts with any authorized company of their choice to provide pilgrimage services in Saudi Arabia.

The cost of insurance for Hajj pilgrims has witnessed a 73 percent drop this year. The price of insurance for Hajj pilgrims was reduced from SR109 to SR29 while that of Umrah was reduced from SR235 to SR88, or 63 percent.

The Hajj season this year 1444 AH witnessed a major shift in terms of expanding services. Some of these services were announced for the first time this season. The announcement of these services, including the easy payment options for Hajj packages, contributed greatly to facilitating the pilgrimage.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced in January that domestic pilgrims have the option of paying the Hajj package costs in three installments, instead of paying the full amount in one go as was the case during previous years.

The Makkah Route Initiative, one of the Interior Ministry's projects that aim to provide high-quality services in Hajj which helped the pilgrims complete their immigration procedures from their countries of origin easily, was expanded to countries such as Turkey and Ivory Coast. The initiative, launched in 2019 for the first time, now operates in seven countries including Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco and Bangladesh besides Turkey and Ivory Coast.

In order to serve the pilgrims and meet all their needs, the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques has provided a system of services in Hajj this year with a cadre that is the highest and largest in its history. The total workforce in the Two Holy Mosques reached 14,000 fully qualified male and female employees.

Saudi Arabia did not stop training Hajj cadres inside the Kingdom this year but expanded the training program to also include, for the first time, foreign volunteers in their country. A training course was held to qualify workers to serve pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia during the Hajj before they start from their countries.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, represented by the center for licensing and training workers who serve pilgrims and Umrah performers, has trained leaders of pilgrims groups in their own countries before the start of the Hajj season, which also includes a detailed explanation of the pilgrims’ journey.

Preparations for receiving pilgrims this season did include not only technology and training but also ways to preserve religious rituals and sanctities from being exploited, as well as protecting the rights of pilgrims guaranteed by the law. Accordingly, the Attorney General and Chairman of the Public Prosecution Council Sheikh Saud Bin Abdullah Al-Mujab has inaugurated the Hajj and Umrah Prosecution next to the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

Al-Mujab stressed the importance of immediately closing the criminal cases referred to the Hajj and Umrah Prosecution, taking into account the protected rights due to quick termination of cases.

Additionally, Al-Mujab stressed the need to activate measures to encourage behaviors that would not affect the serenity of Hajj or Umrah, and would not prejudice national security or the sanctity of the holy sites, in accordance with the law.

Al-Mujab emphasized the sanctity of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims, pointing out the exploitation of religious rites or holy sites is considered among the crimes that require the Public Prosecution to impose the most severe penalties against the accused.

Environmental factors also witnessed new developments in services this year. The National Center for Environmental Compliance confirmed the readiness of national cadres and advanced technologies that will ensure the quality of air, soil and water for pilgrims in Makkah, the holy sites, Madinah, airports and highways.

The center confirmed that 1,350 inspection visits will be conducted this season at all Hajj-related sites, in order to ensure air quality, protect and monitor water sources, and preserve soil from pollution.

For the first time this season, noise levels will be monitored and controlled to maintain and ensure a quiet and comfortable environment for pilgrims during the Hajj period.

The pilgrims will enjoy this year’s Hajj with several transportation options that ensure facilitating their movement within the holy sites. The Transport General Authority (TGA) provided 1,000 electric scooters as a service to Hajj pilgrims to facilitate their movement in the holy sites.

The authority has allocated a specific track for the e-scooters, separating them from other vehicles and pedestrians to preserve the safety of pilgrims. The track consists of two lanes back and forth, with a length of 2 km, starting from Kadana station and ending with the Mahbas Al-Jin tunnel, which leads to Bab Ali station in the Grand Mosque.

TGA has also launched, for the first time, a trial run of self-driving electric buses to serve the pilgrims this season, as it aims to provide innovative modern technologies for sustainable and environment-friendly transportation.

The self-driving buses utilize artificial intelligence, cameras, and surrounding sensors to operate without human intervention along a predefined route. They gather information during movement and analyze it to make necessary decisions, aiming to enhance passenger experience and ensure safety. Each bus has 11 seats, operates for 6 hours per charge, and can reach speeds of up to 30 km/h.

Saudi Arabia pays great attention to delivering information to pilgrims of different nationalities who speak different languages. And from this standpoint, the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques announced the launch of 185 programs and initiatives that were presented during this year’s Hajj season in the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah.

The programs aim to invest in artificial intelligence, digitizing programs, and harnessing electronic applications in various fields to serve pilgrims and talk to them in foreign languages to facilitate Hajj rituals for them.

To enrich people's Hajj experience, the General Presidency of the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques prepared, for the first time in its history, 20 different and varied exhibitions this year.

The holding of exhibitions has been diversified. Some of them are inside the Grand Mosque, while some others are mobile exhibitions touring the holy sites. Some others are in Makkah and Jeddah. The exhibition are held with the aim of providing an opportunity for the largest possible number of visitors and pilgrims to see the history and stages of development of the Two Holy Mosques, which also reflects Saudi Arabia’s vision in developing services in Hajj seasons over the years.

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News Network
April 4,2024

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Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are wondering how they are going to feed their families as World Central Kitchen (WCK) paused its operations in response to the killing of seven of its aid workers in an Israeli air strike.

Another US charity it works with, Anera, has also suspended work because of the escalating risks faced by its local staff and their families.

Together, they were serving two million meals a week across the Palestinian territory, where the UN has warned that an estimated 1.1 million people - half the population - are facing catastrophic hunger because of Israeli restrictions on aid deliveries, the ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of order.

WCK's decision to pause its work also led to the "freezing" of a maritime aid corridor from Cyprus, which the charity helped set up last month to increase the trickle of aid getting into the north of Gaza and avert a looming famine.

The WCK convoy was hit on Monday night as it travelled south along the Israeli-designated coastal aid route, just after they had unloaded more than 100 tonnes of food from a barge at a warehouse in Deir al-Balah.

That barge was part of a four-vessel flotilla that sailed back to Cyprus with 240 tonnes of supplies that could not be brought ashore in the wake of the strike.

The Norwegian Refugee Council warned that "what happened to World Central Kitchen threatens the entire aid system" and had left it "on the brink".

WCK accused the Israeli military of a "targeted attack" on vehicles clearly marked with the charity's logo and whose movements had been co-ordinated with Israel authorities. The victims were British, Polish, Australian and Palestinian, and also included a dual US-Canadian citizen.

The aid groups say that this was not an isolated incident, with at least 196 Palestinian aid workers already killed since the war began in October.

Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former UN humanitarian chief, said that WCK was "among those who have the closest co-operation with the Israelis", in terms of sharing information about their workers' locations and planned movements.

Before the strike, WCK was playing an increasingly prominent and important role in Gaza, with 400 Palestinian staff and 3,000 people working indirectly in its 68 community kitchens and distribution system across the territory.

WCK provided 12% of the 193,000 tonnes of aid from international organisations that had reached Gaza as of Tuesday, according to data from Cogat, the Israeli defence ministry body tasked with co-ordinating deliveries. However, UN agencies were responsible for 80% of the total.

WCK's founder, the chef José Andrés, said on Wednesday that it was "analysing the situation and how to keep doing the work we do".

Anera - which was providing 150,000 meals a day in collaboration with WCK - said it understood the consequences pausing its own work would have on Palestinians, but that its Palestinian staff had for the first time deemed the risk to their safety and that of their families "intolerable".

It said the charity's logistics co-ordinator and his son had been killed in an Israeli air strike in Deir al-Balah in March, despite the fact that the co-ordinates of the shelter where they were staying had been provided to the Israeli military.

"We've asked for explanation as to why that site was struck and we've received none," Derek Madsen of Anera said. "These sites are known and so I think it is very difficult for us to understand how these strikes happen."

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News Network
April 11,2024

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The number of Palestinians arrested by Israeli military forces in the occupied West Bank has surged to 8,165 since October 7, when Israel launched its relentless offensive against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Prisoners Society and the Commission of Detainees and ex-Detainees in a joint statement on Tuesday said that over the past 24 hours, Israeli forces had arrested 20 Palestinians across the West bank.

The statement said that most of the arrests took place in Tulkarm, with additional arrests scattered across other cities, towns and refugee camps in the West Bank such as Beit Lahm, al-Khalil, Ramallah, Nablus, Tubas, and al-Quds.

The arrests were made amidst reports of widespread abuse, severe beatings, threats against detainees and their families, and extensive vandalism in citizens' homes and prisoners' residences in the Israeli prisons.

In the aftermath of the al-Aqsa Storm, over 8,165 arrests were made in the West Bank, with individuals including children being detained from their homes, at military checkpoints, coerced into surrendering, and even taken hostage, the statement revealed.

These figures do not include the thousands of adults and children the Israeli army has detained, tortured and interrogated in makeshift prisons across Gaza, outside any legal or civilian oversight.

Conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have allegedly worsened considerably, with detainees experiencing extreme overcrowding and limited access to essential rights, including food, water, electricity, medical care, family visits, and legal assistance.

Palestinian prisoner groups have repeatedly reported that Palestinians in Israeli prisons are being denied medical care, which pushes those jailed to the brink of death.

At least 10 Palestinians have died in Israeli prisons since Israel’s war on Gaza began, according to Palestinian news agency WAFA. But an investigation by Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that the number was actually at least 27. Rights groups put the number even higher.

Israel has intensified its attacks against Palestinians throughout the West Bank since October 7, when it launched a devastating war on the besieged Gaza Strip.

Since then, the Israeli forces and settlers have killed at least 459 Palestinians from the West Bank, with over 4,750 others sustaining injuries.

In the span of the past six months, at least 33,482 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza. The relentless violence has also resulted in the mass displacement of the 2.3 million people inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.

Concerns have been raised regarding the fate of those who have gone missing, as they may be trapped beneath the rubble or confined within makeshift Israeli prisons.

The significant number of Palestinian detainees remaining in Israeli prisons is a crucial role in truce negotiations between Palestinian resistance group Hamas and Israel.

About 130 of the 250 Israeli captives taken during Operation Al-Aqsa Storm are still in Gaza after a provisional truce deal in December saw the exchange of a number of prisoners between the two sides.

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News Network
April 11,2024

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The head of the political bureau of Hamas says Israel’s assassination of his children will not make the Palestinian resistance group back down on its goals and demands in the latest round of talks aimed at reaching a truce in the Gaza war.

Ismail Haniyeh made the remarks in a phone interview with Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV network on Wednesday night, after an Israeli airstrike killed three of his sons — Hazem, Amir and Mohammad — and four grandchildren in the al-Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. 

“Our demands are clear and specific and we will not make concessions on them. The enemy will be delusional if it thinks that targeting my sons, at the climax of the negotiations and before the movement sends its response, will push Hamas to change its position,” he said.

The Israeli military and the regime’s so-called internal security service, Shin Bet, confirmed killing Haniyeh’s sons, who were visiting relatives on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr before their vehicle was struck.

The assassination came at a time when Hamas was preparing a response to Israel’s proposal for a Gaza ceasefire delivered through mediators during the negotiations in Cairo.

Also in his remarks, Haniyeh said killing his sons would only make Hamas “more steadfast in our principles and adherence to our land.”

The resistance group, he added, would “not surrender, and […] not compromise […] no matter how great our sacrifices are.”

The Hamas leader also noted that around 60 members of his family, including nieces and nephews, have been martyred during the Gaza onslaught. 

“All our people and all the families of Gaza have paid a heavy price in blood, and I am one of them,” he said.

Haniyeh further decried Israel’s brutality in Gaza, saying the regime is conducting a war of ethnic cleansing and genocide on the besieged territory.

“There is no doubt that this criminal enemy is driven by the spirit of revenge and the spirit of murder and bloodshed, and it does not observe any standards or laws,” he stressed.

Erdogan extends condolences to Haniyeh

Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has extended his condolences to Haniyeh over the deaths of several of his family members, the Turkish Communications Directorate said.

During the phone call on Wednesday, Erdogan said that Israel will be held accountable before the law for its crimes against humanity.

In addition, Turkish Vice President Cevdet Yilmaz condemned the attack and conveyed his condolences to Haniyeh.

”The Israeli administration will eventually be held accountable for these inhumane attacks under international law,” Yilmaz said on X.

Israel waged its bloody US-backed war on Gaza on October 7 after Hamas carried out its historic operation against the usurping entity in retaliation for the regime's intensified atrocities against the Palestinian people.

So far, the occupying regime has killed at least 33,482 Palestinians, mostly women and children, and injured 76,049 others.

Ansarullah’s reaction

Meanwhile, the Yemeni Ansarullah resistance group extended its condolences to Haniyeh.

“These great sacrifices … indeed strengthen the steadfastness of Palestinian people in the face of Israeli arrogance,” Ansarullah spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam stated.
On the threatened invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, Haniyeh said, “We will not submit to the occupying regime’s intimidation, as those who surrender will not be spared.”

Shati is the third-largest refugee camp among the eight in the Gaza Strip, and also one of its most crowded, with thousands of people living in an area of less than half a square kilometer.

Ismail Haniyeh, who now lives in Qatar, is originally from Shati camp.

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