Israel permits Gazans to pray at Jerusalem mosque

AP News
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Posted: Oct 05, 2014 8:08 AM
Israel permits Gazans to pray at Jerusalem mosque

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip prayed Sunday at Jerusalem's most important mosque, the first time Israel has allowed such visits from the coastal enclave since the Hamas militant group overran the area in 2007.

The visit was among a package of concessions that Israel has made in the wake of a 50-day war against Hamas to coincide with the current Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Israel said it granted some 1,500 permits to Palestinians in Gaza wanting to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the three-day holiday, which began Saturday. Some 500 worshippers were expected in Jerusalem on Sunday, with the remainder set to arrive over the next two days.

Israel sharply has restricted travel out of the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. It has granted permits for humanitarian reasons and to Christians wanting to travel to Bethlehem for holidays, but permits specifically meant to allow Muslims to visit the mosque have not been issued previously, according to Gisha, an Israeli group that advocates freedom of movement for Gazans.

Israel said it has eased other restrictions as well, including allowing agricultural and fishing products to be exported from Gaza to the West Bank. Israel also has agreed to a procedure that would facilitate the entry of construction materials into Gaza to help with post-war construction.

Gisha welcomed the expanded access but called for an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, imposed in 2007, which has set severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods and through Gaza's borders.

The holiday permits were granted to people 60 years old and up, the military said.

Gazans boarded busses early Sunday, crossed into Israel and headed toward Jerusalem's Old City. The worshippers, some in wheelchairs or using canes, showed their permits to Israeli security guards, who then waved them inside the mosque compound.

Zainab Hassanein, a Gazan who received a permit, called the gesture "a positive step," but asked that younger Gazans be allowed in to pray at the mosque as well.

The permits were issued weeks after Israel and Hamas ended a 50-day war. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, a majority civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians.

Also Sunday, Israel said it would summon Sweden's ambassador after that country declared it would recognize a Palestinian state.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he "regrets" that Sweden "rushed" to make its decision without properly understanding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel fears that Sweden's move could prompt more European countries to recognize a Palestinian state.