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Israel cancels permits for elderly Gazans traveling to Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers

Dec. 6, 2016 9:15 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 7, 2016 1:07 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) - Israeli authorities Tuesday cancelled weekly permits allowing elderly Gazans to travel to occupied East Jerusalem on Fridays to attend prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

An official at the Palestinian liaison office told Ma’an that Israeli authorities decided to cancel the weekly visits of Palestinians in Gaza to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque due to Palestinian worshipers not returning directly back to the Gaza Strip after prayers, in violation of the permit conditions.

However, the official added that Israel would continue to permit 100 Palestinians who are UNRWA employees, the UN agency responsible for providing services to some five million Palestinian refugees, to travel to Al-Aqsa for prayers.

A spokesperson for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli agency responsible for implementing Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, was not immediately available for comment.

Since several months ago, Israeli authorities have allowed 250 Palestinians to leave Gaza for prayers at Al-Aqsa, including UNRWA employees and 150 additional worshipers whose permits are arranged by Gaza’s Civil Affairs Committee.

However, the number of Palestinians permitted to worship at Al-Aqsa was reduced by Israel earlier this year, as Israeli authorities had previously permitted 300 elderly Palestinians from the small Palestinian territory to travel to Al-Aqsa every Friday.

A spokesperson for COGAT told Ma'an at the time that Israeli authorities decided to reduce the quota of permits for Palestinians to travel to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for prayers as a result of Hamas and other groups "choosing to use the crossing permits given to them illegally."

The spokesperson added at the time that the decision would continue to be reviewed "in accordance with the conduct of the Palestinians and their choice to respect the agreements with Israel."

Visitations of elderly Palestinians from Gaza were implemented as part of a ceasefire agreement that ended Israel’s 2014 offensive on the besieged enclave. However, due to Israeli security concerns and Jewish holidays, visits have been frequently interrupted since their introduction.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, cherished as the third holiest site in Islam, is located in East Jerusalem, a part of the internationally recognized Palestinian territory which has been occupied by the Israeli army for almost 50 years.

It is also venerated as Judaism's most holy place, as it sits where Jews believe the First and Second Temples once stood. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and some Jewish extremists have called for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to build a Third Temple in its place.

The majority of the more than 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are sealed inside the coastal enclave due to a near-decade long military blockade imposed by Israel and upheld by Egypt on the southern border.

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