Hundreds of elderly Gazans paid a rare visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Sunday after Israel eased tight restrictions on movement over the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
It was the first time since 2007 Muslim worshippers from Gaza were granted permission to travel to the ancient shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City, an Israeli rights group said.
The move to ease access over the Muslim feast of sacrifice was announced by Israel just over a month after a ceasefire ended a 50-day war in Gaza which killed almost 2,200 Palestinians and 73 on the Israeli side.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel agreed to ease restrictions limiting Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
The Israeli army said in a statement it had given permits to a total of 500 Gaza residents over the age of 60 to visit the plaza over the course of three days until the feast ends on Tuesday.
The first group arrived at the Al-Aqsa mosque plaza during the morning and were allowed to stay there until 3:00 pm (1200 GMT), after which they were taken back to the Gaza border, an AFP correspondent said.
Many hadn’t visited the shrine — the third holiest site in Islam — in decades, kissing the ground as they entered.
“I haven’t been here for 35 years. Everything has changed,” smiled Umm Dallaleh Fayyad, a woman in a black abaya and a vibrant blue headscarf.
“It’s like being in paradise.”
The move was hailed by Gisha, an Israeli NGO which calls for freedom of access and movement for Palestinians, which had repeatedly petitioned the courts over the matter, without success.
“This hasn’t happened since 2007. Christians could leave (for religious holidays) but not Muslims,” said Gisha spokeswoman Shai Grunberg.
Gazans’ freedom of movement has been restricted since 2007 when the Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the territory, prompting Israel to significantly tighten a blockade imposed a year earlier after militants there seized an Israeli soldier.
Israel also granted permits to 500 Gazans to visit relatives in the West Bank and said it would allow some exports — predominantly fish — to be shipped from Gaza to the West Bank.
Agricultural exports to Israel and the West Bank have also been subjected to an almost total ban since 2007.
Before then, the two markets accounted for 85 percent of Gaza’s export revenues. Today, that figure stands at two percent, Gisha said.
“It’s a good first step to allow goods from Gaza to reach the West Bank,” Grunberg said.
But Gisha said it was concerned such moves were being presented as “a gesture for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, rather than a permanent change.”