Saudi football delegation visits Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa

Jerusalem (AFP) –


A Saudi football delegation visited east Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Monday as part of a groundbreaking trip to play a match in the occupied West Bank.

The trip for Tuesday's World Cup qualifier match marks a change in policy for the Gulf state, which has previously only played against Palestine in third countries to avoid seeking Israeli permission to travel to the West Bank.

Saudi staff visited the Al-Aqsa compound on Monday and prayed there, said Omar al-Jaafar, spokesman for the Palestinian Football Association.

The highly sensitive holy site is in the part of the city occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

It is the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, while it is the most sacred for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.

Housing the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, it is the site of frequent tension between Israelis and Palestinians.

Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions, with Palestinians fearing Israel will seek to exert greater control over it.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

"It is a sports delegation that has nothing to do with politics," Al-Aqsa director Omar al-Kiswani said.

"The delegation includes around 22 people ... They have the right to visit the mosque."

The team visit has been seen by some as breaching a decades-long Arab boycott of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians because of the Israeli permits obtained.

Palestinian officials dispute that.

Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the West Bank, where the Palestinian national team plays, as it obliged them to apply for Israeli entry permits, implying normalisation of relations.

But lately clubs or national teams from Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all visited.

Others, including Egypt and Lebanon, still refuse.