Dozens of Palestinian children from the Gaza Strip saw Jerusalem and two of its holy sites for the first time on Sunday as part of a UN-run exchange program.
Ninety-one children aged between eight and 14 crossed from the Palestinian enclave into Israel before visiting Jerusalem, according to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.
All but seven had never been out of Gaza, said UNRWA’s Scott Anderson.
The children visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried, and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound nearby, he said. Both sites are in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The children prayed and took pictures at the mosque compound, which also includes the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, an AFP journalist reported.
The compound is the third-holiest in Islam and the most sacred for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.
“They were over-the-moon excited,” Anderson said. “There’s really no other way to describe it.”
The children later travelled to Ramallah and will remain in the West Bank until Friday. They will visit various West Bank cities throughout the week.
The Gaza Strip, run by the terrorist group Hamas, has been under an Israeli blockade for a decade.
Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel and has fought three major rounds of conflict against it since seizing Gaza in 2007. Over the years, it has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, tunneled under the border to carry out attacks, and orchestrated suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
UN officials have called for an end to the blockade, citing deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the enclave of two million people.
Israel says its blockade is essential to prevent terrorists from obtaining materials to fortify military positions, dig tunnels and build rockets to fire at the Jewish state.
Gazans need Israeli permission to visit the West Bank and Jerusalem, which requires them to enter Israeli territory.
The vast majority of the children on Sunday’s trip had never been to Jerusalem even though it is only some 75 kilometers (around 45 miles) from Gaza City.
Gaza’s crossing with Egypt — the only other country with which it shares a border — has also remained largely closed in recent years.
The exchange program, in its first year, included 38 Palestinian children from the West Bank visiting the Gaza Strip a few weeks ago.
UNRWA hopes to carry out more such exchanges in the future.