Mecca - Hussain Tarneesi had never crossed a bridge or walked near a wide, paved road in his life.

Tarneesi, who is from the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza, had never stood in front of a skyscraper or a shopping centre. He had never been out of the territory where infrastructure is severely lacking after repeated Israeli military campaigns, which flattened many neighbourhoods.

This week, at the age of 55, Tarneesi boarded a plane for the first time in his life and headed to Saudi Arabia, discovering the marks of a modern city.

The glare of Jeddah and Mecca was riveting, he said, but it was the sight of the Kaaba, the holiest structure in Islam, that caused him to collapse in tears.

'When I saw the Kaaba, I started crying from happiness,' said Hussain Tarneesi, a pilgrim from Gaza [AP]

"I started crying because I wasn't even hoping to see it," he told Al Jazeera, wiping away more tears. "I didn't expect to get a permit. It was a shock. When I saw the Kaaba, I started crying from happiness."


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Travel for Tarneesi and hundreds of thousands of others in Gaza is next to impossible. Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza - which residents refer to as an "open-air prison" - since 2007. Gaza's only other neighbour, Egypt, opens the border crossing of Rafah for a few weeks each year. For a few days earlier this month, the crossing was opened to allow pilgrims to fly to Saudi Arabia through Cairo's airport.

The five-hour trip from Gaza to Cairo's airport took 13 hours by bus, pilgrims told Al Jazeera. They said they were told by Egyptian authorities that the bus had to reroute for unspecified security reasons.

Saudi Arabia this year offered to fully fund the Hajj journeys of 1,000 Palestinians, half from Gaza and the other half from the occupied West Bank. The majority of pilgrims were family members of Palestinians killed in Israeli military operations.

"I am someone who has no money, someone who is not allowed to travel. Suddenly, the doors of heaven opened for me. I look at the streets here, and I think I am entering into heaven," Tarneesi said.

I am someone who has no money, someone who is not allowed to travel. Suddenly, the doors of heaven opened for me. I look at the streets here, and I think I am entering into heaven.

Hussain Tarneesi, pilgrim from Gaza

Under the Kaaba, the black cube at the centre of Mecca's Grand Mosque, Tarneesi felt he could finally let go of his composure and sob. He prayed for his son, who was killed at 21 during clashes with Israel in 2004.

"They shot him dead, 10 metres away from me. Every time I remember him I cry. He was engaged ... I couldn't even see him get married," Tarneesi told Al Jazeera in the Mecca hotel that is accommodating the Palestinian pilgrims.


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Waiting at the hotel's elevator near Tarneesi was 67-year-old Sheikh Haniyyah, the preacher of Gaza's Grand Omari Mosque, the largest and oldest mosque in the territory.

The moment he saw Tarneesi crying, Haniyyah burst into tears himself, speaking of the tragic conditions under which Palestinians in Gaza currently live. "No bread, no salaries, no electricity," he sobbed.

"I pray to God that Al-Aqsa Mosque can be liberated by King Salman [of Saudi Arabia], and he leads the prayer there," Haniyyah told Al Jazeera, referring to the flashpoint mosque that has seen renewed clashes in recent days between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

The Saudi initiative to host Palestinian pilgrims was promoted by Ismaeel Abou Dakka, 63, a member of the Committee of Martyrs' Families in Gaza. His own son was shot dead by the Israeli army as he was leaving his university.

"Every single family has a martyr or more," Dakka told Al Jazeera. "We want to make all their families happy."

Source: Al Jazeera