The Palestinian athletics coach Mousa Qadoum was so overcome by emotion on entering the al-Aqsa mosque yesterday that he collapsed into silent tears. It was a reminder of how rare it is for Gazans make it out of the territory to what for Muslims is easily the most sacred site in the Holy Land, a mere 48 miles away.
After composing himself, a still tearful Mr Qadoum, 31, from the eastern Gaza City suburb of Shejaia, explained: “I have only ever seen it in newspapers and on TV. I never imagined in my whole life that I would ever come to pray in al-Aqsa. I never imagined it until I die.”
Mohamad Fanouna, 31, who will compete in long jump, javelin, and the 200 metres, and who was partially blinded by a childhood head injury, said: “All our neighbours will be jealous. Nobody can come here to unless he is sick and it is not easy then.”
Israel imposes restrictions on travel for Palestinians living in the occupied territories, citing security conerns. Travel between Gaza and the West Bank is also severely restricted.
It was thanks to the British Consul-General that a nine-strong Gazan party of paralympian athletes and coaches, including four competitors in London 2012, were able to make the coveted trip at all.
Staff here worked hard for six weeks to persuade the Israeli authorities to grant the necessary permits for the Erez Crossing into Israel which they did for all except one wheelchair-bound competitor, refused on unspecified security grounds.
He, like the other athletes, will probably leave for the games themselves through Egypt. Hatem Zakout, 40 (discus and shot put) from Khan Yunis, who suffers from hereditary total blindness, said of the Jerusalem trip: “It’s a big motivation for the athletes in the build-up to London. We can be considered the representatives of all disabled athletes in Gaza.”
Although none of the competitors are the victims of war injuries Mr Zakout added with a touch of irony: “Thanks to Israel there are a lot of disabled athletes in Gaza.”
The British Consul-General, Sir Vincent Fean, said: “It is a privilege to meet such an inspiring group of dedicated sportsmen. I was deeply moved and delighted to witness their joy at seeing al-Aqsa and The Dome of the Rock.”
Although the consulate arranged for £25,000 to be set aside by the London organising committee for pre-games training and accommodation, the Palestinian Paralympics committee says it has been unable to take the offer up because they were required to find the money up front, only being reimbursed afterwards.
But Nabil Hamdia, 44, from Gaza City (discus, shot put and javelin), who is wheelchair-bound after falling while a construction worker, and who last visited Jerusalem 25 years ago, said the athletes were still hoping to spend two weeks in a training camp before the games start. “I hope going to London will compensate for the lack of facilities in Gaza,” he said.