'I hope this is not the last time': 100 Gaza children in rare visit to Jerusalem's holy sites
Around a hundred children from Gaza have visited Jerusalem – including the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – for the first time, in a trip organised by the United Nations.
For most of the children, aged between 8 and 14, it was there first time not only to the Holy City, but outside of Gaza, exit from and entry to which is controlled by Israel.
'When we saw Al-Aqsa mosque, we felt so happy,' said 13-year-old Hind Slameh Abu Hilu. 'We prayed in Al-Aqsa, which we used to feel was impossible. We felt so happy,' he told CNN.
The group was on a trip organised by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides help to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank.
Organisers said that it was the first UNRWA trip designed specifically to bring children to visit the Jerusalem holy sites, including Al-Aqsa – said to be the third holiest site in Islam - and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most revered site in Christianity where Jesus is held to have been crucified, buried and Resurrected.
The children are also visiting parts of the West Bank on their trip.
'When we were on the road, a lot of them said to me, "I don't feel that this is true." Finally, it is going to be true,' said Ragh Dahamdouna, one of the teachers accompanying the students. 'The children here are so happy, so excited.'
Dahamdouna added: 'I think I am a little child here, and I let myself enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the friendship, enjoy everything!'
Since Hamas took over in Gaza a decade ago, Israel has imposed a blockade of the Strip, with Gaza's 2 million residents facing increasingly dire living conditions. They currently have access to only a few hours of electricity per day.
Generally, only Palestinians applying on medical and humanitarian grounds are allowed in and out of Gaza.
'Most of these children have never met any of their extended family here,' said Scott Anderson, director of UNRWA operations in the West Bank. 'So to have that opportunity (is great), and frankly, the program is fantastic. They're going to see parts of the West Bank that many people never get to see.'
The group entered Israel through the Erez border crossing early Sunday afternoon before enjoying lunch inside Jerusalem's Old City and making their way through the souks to the Lion's Gate in the Muslim Quarter.
'It's a very holy place for Muslims and for others in the world,' 13-year-old Ahmad Abu Almashayakeh, from the Magazi refugee camp in Gaza, told CNN. 'It's a very fantastic feeling, and it's like a new thing you're doing in your life.'
Another of the children, Abu Hilu said: 'I hope this is not going to be the last time. It is the first time, and I hope we will repeat this trip many times later on.'