OCCUPIED JERUSALEM - An Israeli decision to ease restrictions on visits to the holy city has prompted Palestinians to flock to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine, in Al-Quds (occupied East Jerusalem) to mark the final days of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
"I'm rejoicing and so happy to be in Jerusalem after 10 years of not visiting," 42-year-old Mohammed Rashid, from the West Bank town of Yatta, told Reuters while sipping a midnight draught of coffee in a brightly lit old city arcade.
Nearly half a million Palestinians visited Al-Aqsa Mosque on Tuesday to mark Laylat Al-Qadr (the night when the Qur'an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
The influx followed an Israeli decision to ease restrictions on Palestinians seeking to visit Islam's third holiest shrine.
Israeli officials said on Wednesday, August 15, they had lowered the age limit for men wanting to visit Al-Aqsa mosque in the old city to 40 from 50.
Officials also said that they had handed out seven times more permits to Palestinians between the ages of 35 and 40.
The Israeli Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories' (COGAT) said it had distributed 123,514 entry permits and had also slashed the age limit.
Last Ramadan, Israeli authorities had allowed only 16,700 permits.
A COGAT spokesman said the change was "due to the security situation".
Israel wanted "to support and strengthen the economy and allow Palestinian's freedom of religious worship in the maximum," he said.
Israeli officials, however, say the new rules only apply for the last few days of Ramadan, after which the old restrictions come back into force.
"Why am I allowed in now, but next week I'm not?" Rashid asked.
The Old City's stone streets, normally echoing caverns hinting at isolation and hard economic times by night, were a thick flow of pilgrims on Tuesday night, coursing past stalls of traditional cross-stitched dresses, prayer beads, spices and sweets.
Palestinian officials were also critical of the temporary rules.
"It's not a question of the number of permits, but why permits are needed at all," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.
"To cut Palestinians off from their cultural, religious, and political institutions in Jerusalem is unjust and unfair."
Al-Quds represents the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel occupied the holy city in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community or UN resolutions.
Since then, Israel has adopted a series of oppressive measures to force the Palestinians out of the city, including systematic demolition of their homes and building settlements.Israel imposed a network of checkpoints and built a broad separation barrier across the West Bank after the eruption of Palestinian uprising beginning in 2000, preventing most West Bankers from entering the country.