Israel allowed “more than a million” Palestinians through its roadblocks to pray at the mosques of Jerusalem and paddle in the Mediterranean over Ramadan, in what an Israeli official said was part of several measures aimed at rebuilding confidence between the sides.
The new attempt to warm the atmosphere contrasts with the freeze in peace efforts since direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled in September 2010 over an intractable dispute concerning settlements.
Guy Inbar, spokesman for the defence ministry department that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs in the West Bank said there had been an unprecedented easing of entry restrictions over the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday at its end.
“More than a million Palestinians entered Israel over Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr for prayers, family visits and trips around Israel,” he said.
He could not say how many of those limited their visit to Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem which the Jewish state considers to be part of its capital while the Palestinians, who make up most of its population, claim it as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The city is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, and the relaxed restrictions gave tens of thousands a rare opportunity to visit the Muslim holy site, the third-holiest in Islam.
West Bankers are usually only allowed into the city or inside Israel with special permits.
Palestinians also flocked to the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean which many inhabitants of the landlocked West Bank have never seen.
“I am so happy that my grandchildren were able to see the sea and now can understand how beautiful our country is,” Fawzya Fararjeh, 55,” told an AFP correspondent while walking along a Tel Aviv beach.
“We live in Beit Sahur east of Bethlehem, ” she added. “If it was up to us we would be here every day but Israel never gave us permits.”
“I was 10 years old when I saw the sea for the last time,” said Jihan Zaid, now 22, from Deir Ammar village near Ramallah.
Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinians were intensified after the 2000 outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising.
Israeli officials said that the new relaxation — which ends on Thursday — is part of a policy aimed at thawing the chilly relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
One official cited a series of measures, among them an agreement last month on bilateral tax and trade arrangements, an attempt to broker an IMF loan for Abbas’s cash-strapped administration and the repatriation in May of the remains of 91 Palestinians killed during anti-Israeli attacks over four decades.
“Over the past few weeks we have adopted a whole series of confidence-building measures,” he said on condition of anonymity. “We’ve done all those things and we’re willing to do more, to try to create a better atmosphere.”