In al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, Moussa Qadoom sank to the floor and wept into the gold and red carpet. As swallows swooped between the white marble columns of the vast edifice, the athletics coach from Gaza City surrendered to the emotion of the moment.
"I'm 31 years old, and I have only ever seen this place in newspapers and on television," he said a few minutes later. "I never imagined in my whole life that I would come and pray in al-Aqsa."
The distance between Gaza City and Jerusalem is less than 50 miles, but one that is near-impossible for most Palestinians in the tiny enclave to undertake. But Qadoom was one of nine athletes and coaches – four of whom will compete in the Paralympics in London this summer – to visit the holy site on Monday, courtesy of the British consulate in Jerusalem to mark 100 days to the start of the Games.
A fifth Paralympic contestant, wheelchair user Khatib Zakout, 47, was refused permission to leave Gaza by the Israeli authorities on security grounds.
Wearing London 2012 T-shirts and baseball caps, the group swung between elation and awe during their visit to al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, whose images grace the walls of almost every Palestinian home. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
"It is our dream to be here," said Nabil Hamdiya, 44, a wheelchair user who will compete in the discus, javelin and shot put events. Jerusalem – a city he last visited 25 years ago — has "a special place in our hearts and minds".
"All our neighbours felt jealous," added Mohamed Fanouna, 31, a partially blind 200m runner and long jumper.
Hamdiya and Fanouna both recited an impressive list of medals won in previous Paralympics and international competitions. But getting out of Gaza for this week's visit to Jerusalem also seemed like an Olympian feat.
Officials from the British consulate applied to Israel for exit permits on the group's behalf in March. Confirmation for the nine finally came on Thursday, but there was still a six-hour wait at the Erez crossing on Sunday while last-minute hitches were ironed out.
The visit, said Hatam Zakut, 40, was "a big motivation for athletes in the buildup to London". Blind as a result of a hereditary condition, Zakut – who will compete in the shot put and discus events – had last visited Jerusalem as a child.
"We consider ourselves representatives of all disabled athletes in Gaza," he said. "Thanks to the Israelis, there are a lot of us." Tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are disabled as a result of Israeli military operations.
The group is expected to spend this week visiting relatives in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before returning to Gaza. The athletes hope to reach London a couple of weeks ahead of the Paralympics in order to train intensively for the competition to make up for the lack of facilities in Gaza.
But Akram Okkeh, president of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee, said there were problems with raising funds to train in London. Although the British consulate had arranged a £25,000 grant from the London Olympics organisers, he said his committee would need to pay expenses in advance and be reimbursed later. That, he said, would not be possible.