It was around 10am, more than two hours before the Friday prayer would begin, but this was an extremely rare opportunity for Palestinians from Gaza to pray at Al-Aqsa mosque and they did not want to waste a second outside of the holy site.
“We all wanted the bus to hurry up and get to Jerusalem as quickly as possible,” said Mohammed al-Bazz, 70. “We wanted to spend as much time in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa as possible.”
Bazz and his wife were two of 100 Palestinians from Gaza who received permission from the Israeli civil administration, a unit of Israel’s defence ministry, to visit Jerusalem for the Friday prayer.
We see this as the separation and isolation of Gaza. By allowing travel to Jerusalem for a few hours, people might be able to get a taste of life outside but then must be rushed back into Gaza.
They began their journey early that morning, leaving their home in Gaza City around 5am and travelling to the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, known as Beit Hanoun to Palestinians. When they arrived they were greeted by a representative from the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs and fellow travellers.
Half an hour later, they had negotiated the Israeli terminal and waited for the buses that would deliver them to Jerusalem by late morning.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” said Bazz. “It’s an important feeling for Muslims to come during Ramadan to pray at the holy mosque, Al-Aqsa.”
Bazz, a retired journalist who was chief of programming at Palestine TV in Gaza, used to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank city Ramallah frequently for work. But since Israel imposed a blockade on the coastal territory in 2007, limiting and controlling the flow of people and goods into and out of Gaza, he has only left on one occasion, when he and his wife received a day permit to visit Al-Aqsa during Eid in 2016.
While some of his fellow travellers marvelled at the scenery as the buses drove through Israeli territory towards Jerusalem, Bazz said he focused on the religious significance of the visit. “Everything in Jerusalem is different to Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s a holy city. It has a special status in our hearts. I feel very happy to come to Jerusalem to pray here.”
“It’s not just the blockade. We only have 3-4 hours of electricity each day and also it is a very tough blockade imposed on Gaza. Life there is miserable and difficult, so when we come here it means a lot for us.”
The energy situation in Gaza, where daily 20-hour power shortages have become the norm, deteriorated further in late April when the Palestinian Authority (PA) said it would no longer pay for the electricity that Israel supplies to the territory.
Israel does not deal directly with Hamas, the Islamist Resistance movement that rules Gaza. Instead, Israel works with the PA on all matters concerning the Palestinian territory, including the granting of exit permits for business, medical and other reasons.
Israel began to make permits for Friday prayers available in late 2014, with a weekly quota of 200 permits for worshippers over the age of 60 and an expanded programme during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
However, Israel has periodically cancelled the prayer permits completely, most recently in December 2016, after some worshippers returned to Gaza later than the time specified on the permit.
Lifting the cancellation in its 2017 Ramadan programme, Israel’s civil administration stated that up to 100 Palestinians from Gaza, aged over 55, would be eligible for permits to pray at Al-Aqsa on each Friday, while a further 300 permits would be made available across the rest of the month for over 50s from “special groups,” including Red Crescent staff, trade unions and employees of international organisations.
The conditions of the permits state that all worshippers must return to Gaza on the same day.
The limited number of permits posed a problem for the PA’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, which began receiving thousands of applications at the start of the year. The ministry froze the process, but then reopened it a few weeks before Ramadan, and the applications continued to mount.
“There are 16,000-17,000 residents in Gaza who registered for these permits,” said Mohammed Maqadmeh, spokesperson for the PA Ministry of Civil Affairs in Gaza, who accompanied the Gaza residents to Jerusalem. “They all met the conditions and wanted to come and pray in Jerusalem.
“It’s like a lottery. Every week, we select 100 different people. A very small number of people are allowed to pray during Ramadan.”
Maqadmeh stated that demand for the permits is so high because so many Gaza residents are unable to get exit permits throughout the year, meaning that Ramadan is their only chance to visit Jerusalem.
“Firstly, it is important because Al-Aqsa is a sacred place,” he said. “Secondly, I believe that there are some people from Gaza who have not been to Jerusalem for 17 years. Some come for pure religious reasons, and some of them really miss this place, Al-Aqsa.”
“Al-Aqsa seems very far away. Twenty years ago, Gaza residents could come to Al-Aqsa freely. But now it is like a different world. It feels far away, as far away as Mecca,” said Maqadmeh.
According to Israeli NGO Gisha, the legal centre for freedom of movement, this year’s quota of exit permits for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, has been reduced by half compared with 2016 and signifies a “tightening of the closure on Gaza”.
In the two previous years, residents of Gaza were able to apply for a limited number of family visit permits, which allowed them to visit relatives based in the West Bank or in Israel, but this category was absent from this year’s quotas.
Tania Hary, executive director at Gisha, told Al Jazeera that there has been a general downward trend in the number of overall exits from Gaza since late 2015 and that the 4,677 exits recorded in April was the lowest monthly total since the 2014 Israel’s war on the besieged Gaza Strip.
“The criteria for who is allowed to travel hasn’t really changed drastically over time,” said Hary. “The issue is a matter of implementation. Requests are submitted. We know from our own cases that many requests are denied or they simply remain pending for long periods of time.”
“It’s relevant to look at this in the context of marking 50 years of occupation,” said Hary. “We see this as the separation and isolation of Gaza. By allowing travel to Jerusalem for a few hours, people might be able to get a taste of life outside but then must be rushed back into Gaza,” she added.
“This prevention of people being able to travel freely or move to the West Bank [shows] there is definitely an interest in keeping the populations separated and isolated.”
When Bazz received the news that his permit application had been successful, he quickly told his children and neighbours, each of whom had a special request. “They were extremely happy for me. Not everyone can do it,” he said.
“They all asked me to call on God to bless them while I am here and I will.” With that, he turned away and headed towards the gate of Al-Aqsa.