Defying Netanyahu, Ben Gvir ascends to Jerusalem flashpoint
While there were no immediate demonstrations in Jerusalem, the move drew condemnation from nations across the region, including those with which Israel hopes to sign normalization agreements.
On Tuesday morning, Ben Gvir said he would not “give in” to threats from Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, over his planned visit to the disputed site.
“Temple Mount is open to all and if Hamas thinks if it threatens me it will deter me, please understand times have changed,” he tweeted, along with a photo of himself flanked by security agents.
The Israeli government of which I am a member will not surrender to a vile murderous organization. The Temple Mount is open to all and if Hamas thinks that threatening me will deter me, then understand that times have changed. There is a government in Jerusalem! pic.twitter.com/vgDYBYacJG
— Itamar Ben Gvir (@itamarbengvir) January 3, 2023
A visit to the site by Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, in 2000 with an army of security guards kicked off the fighting years of the second intifada. More recently, the clashes have been sparked by trips by right-wing Israeli lawmakers to the site, which is revered in Judaism. The Palestinians see these moves as part of an effort to extend Israeli control over the site, which is also revered by Muslims, who call it the Noble Sanctuary.
In May 2021, Ben Gvir’s support of settlers in an East Jerusalem neighborhood near the entrance to the Temple Mount was one of the catalysts for an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Ben Gvir’s visit came less than a week after the inauguration of Israel’s new government, which is led by Netanyahu but anchored by a bloc of once fringe far-right parties whose members have vowed to annex the West Bank and extinguish any remaining possibility for a two-state solution, in which a Palestinian state would exist alongside Israel.
Ben Gvir, who takes up a new post as national security minister responsible for police, has long advocated a change to the status quo on the Temple Mount, which since the 1967 war has been administered by the well-known Jordanian religious authority. like Waqf. He forbids any non-Muslim prayers at the top of the site, and Israeli police require non-Muslim visitors to store religious items, such as prayer books, at the entrance.
For decades, as the prospect of a two-state solution faded and the site’s status as a symbol of national sovereignty rose, Israeli and regional leaders warned that the slightest change could set the region on fire.
Ben Gvir’s visit could “lead to more tension and violence and an explosive situation,” Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement. He called on the US administration “to shoulder its responsibilities and force Israel to halt its escalation and storm the al-Aqsa Mosque before it is too late,” the statement said.
His criticisms were echoed by Israel’s neighbors; some of them, including United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt—have signed peace treaties or normalization agreements with Israel.
Jordan condemned “in the strongest terms the assault on the al-Aqsa Mosque and the violation of its sanctity,” and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry warned “of the negative repercussions of such measures on security and stability in the territories.” occupied and the region, and in the future of the peace process”.
Saudi Arabia, which Israel has been eager to add to the list of Arab nations with which it has signed agreements, strongly condemned the “provocative practices” and also described it as the “assault” on the al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard. The Foreign Ministry expressed regret over Israeli activities “undermining international peace efforts.”
The US Embassy in Israel said Ambassador Tom Nides “has been very clear in discussions with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. Actions that prevent that are unacceptable.”
Even Netanyahu has condemned visits to the site as provocative, including in a 2020 speech in which he justified rejecting a proposal by Ben Gvir to allow Jewish prayer there in exchange for his party’s withdrawal from the election.
“Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, while it sounds like a reasonable thing to do, I know it would have set the Middle East on fire,” he said. There is a limit. There are things that I am not willing to do to win an election.”
But this time, Netanyahu’s return to power after 18 months on the sidelines was made possible by Ben Gvir and his far-right associates. In recent years, they have moved from the political fringes into the mainstream, along with a related group. grassroots movement of Temple Mount activists.
Its members include many young people living in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank who defied an edict issued by leading Orthodox rabbis forbidding Jews from ascending the mount for fear of inadvertently walking into the inner sanctum of the ancient temple, where only there was the high priest. allowed to step on
A decade ago, only a handful of Jews would ascend the Temple Mount and surreptitiously pray into their hands or cell phones. But in recent years, the number has grown to hundreds, sometimes thousands during holiday periods, and visitors sometimes pray in open violation of the rules.
Miri Eisen, a former high-ranking intelligence officer in the Israeli army, said that with its unprecedented representation in the Israeli government, the right-wing movement seems willing to plunge the region into violence as the price for completing its mission of “making obey the law”. idea that their rights, as Jews, outweigh any other consideration, including security issues.”
“Extremism generates confrontations that immediately turn violent,” he added. “And all the fighting starts on the Temple Mount.”
Hazem Balousha in Ramallah and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.