Israel Eases Gaza Travel Restrictions for Muslim Holiday

In rare step, 500 Palestinians living in Gaza will be allowed to pray in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque and visit relatives in the West Bank.

Allyn Fisher-Ilan
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Palestinian children have their picture taken in front of the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Jerusalem, October 15, 2013.
Palestinian children have their picture taken in front of the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Jerusalem, October 15, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Allyn Fisher-Ilan

REUTERS - In a rare step Israel said on Wednesday it would let 500 Palestinians living in Gaza pray at a Jerusalem holy site during the Eid al-Adha feast at the weekend, and allow Palestinians from the West Bank to enter Israel more freely for the holiday.

The measures seen as Israel's most sweeping easing of restrictions on Palestinian movement since 2007 were announced as Washington issued statements condemning Israeli settlement expansion plans in Jerusalem, after President Barack Obama's White House talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli military said that from October 5 through 7, the days of the Muslim feast, 500 Palestinians from Gaza aged 60 and over would be permitted to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and 500 could visit close relatives in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians living in the West Bank would be allowed unlimited travel to Israel for sightseeing and family visits over the holiday as well, the Israeli statement said.

Gaza would also be permitted to export agricultural produce to the West Bank, Israel said. Palestinian official Nazmi Mhana said it would be the first time since Israel blockaded Gaza when Hamas Islamists seized control there in 2007 that Gaza could sell its fish and vegetables in the West Bank.

Palestinians saw the Israeli steps as meeting its obligations under an August 26 ceasefire ending a 50-day Gaza war to ease a blockade of the coastal territory.

The Israeli military said the moves were part of a policy intended to "improve the fabric of life for Palestinian society."

In Washington, where Netanyahu met with Obama, the State Department voiced concern about reports Israel had moved forward plans to build some 2,600 new settler homes in East Jerusalem.

"This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

It would also "call into question Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement," she added.

Israel sees East Jerusalem as part of its undivided capital in a position not recognized by most other countries. Palestinians want the city to be capital of a future state.

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