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100 UNRWA employees travel from Gaza to Jerusalem for Friday prayers in Al-Aqsa

Dec. 16, 2016 10:33 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 16, 2016 4:22 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- One hundred employees of UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing services to some five million Palestinian refugees around the Middle East, traveled from the besieged Gaza Strip to occupied East Jerusalem to perform Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Palestinian liaison officials told Ma’an that 100 UNRWA employees traveled via the Erez border crossing between the coastal enclave and Israel, while 150 Palestinians whose permits are arranged by Gaza’s Civil Affairs Committee were prevented from attending prayers, as Israeli authorities have continuously accused Palestinians of not returning to the Gaza Strip immediately following the visit.

A spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli agency responsible for implementing Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, told Ma'an earlier this month regarding permit cancellations, that the permits were cancelled as a result of "many [Palestinians] exploiting the permits and staying illegally in Israel."

"In spite of the agreements with the Palestinian side, Gaza residents have continued to exploit the permits and so it was decided to reduce the amount of permits given for travel to Jerusalem Fridays, in a similar step that was taken a few weeks ago," the statement continued, adding that "we will not allow for this abuse of Israel's civil policy to continue."

Since several months ago, Israeli authorities have allowed 250 Palestinians to leave Gaza for prayers at Al-Aqsa every Friday, 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 alleged 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 occupied 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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