Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Tuesday he visited the Jerusalem compound known as the the temple mount by Jews and the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, in a move that drew international condemnation.
Videos published in the Israeli media showed Ben Gvir walking through the compound surrounded by Israeli police.
Tensions are high over the Flashpoint complex, which is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam. It contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the site of the destroyed first and second Jewish temples. Only Muslims are allowed to pray at the compound under a decades-old agreement; Ben Gvir believes that Jews should also have the right to pray there.
The Palestinians immediately opposed the visit.
“We strongly condemn the storming of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque by extremist Ben Gvir, and consider it an unprecedented provocation and a serious threat,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We hold [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] netanyahu responsible for its consequences on the conflict and the region”.
Ben Gvir entered the compound on Tuesday, but not the Al-Aqsa Mosque building. The lawmaker’s visit was his first since he took office last week as national security minister in what is shaping up to be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. It is led by Netanyahu, who has returned for his sixth term as prime minister at the head of a coalition that includes several extremist parties.
Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party, has previously been convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism. As national security minister, he oversees the police in Israel, as well as some police activities in the occupied West Bank.
Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza, warned that Ben Gvir’s visit would be a “precursor to igniting the region” and “add fuel to the fire.”
“The Israeli government of which I am a member will not surrender to a vile murderous organization,” Ben Gvir responded in a tweet. “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!”
Under the so-called standstill agreement dating from Ottoman rule of Jerusalem, only Muslims are allowed to pray inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and non-Muslims are only allowed to visit the compound at certain times. Israel and other states agreed to maintain the status quo of access to these holy sites after Israel captured them in the 1967 war.
Some religious nationalist Jewish groups have been demanding access to the Temple Mount area for Jewish prayer. There have been several cases of Jewish visitors holding prayers at the compound, prompting outrage from Muslim authorities and forced expulsions by Israeli police.
Visits by Israeli political figures have historically preceded periods of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. In particular, in September 2000, the Second Intifada began when the conservative opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the site accompanied by hundreds of policemen.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid criticized Netanyahu over the visit, calling him “weak” for entrusting the “most irresponsible man in the Middle East to the most explosive place in the Middle East.”
In a tweet, Lapid called the visit a “provocation that will lead to violence that will endanger human life and cost human lives,” saying it is time for Netanyahu to tell Ben Gvir: “Don’t climb Mount Temple”. because people are going to die.”
The visit also sparked a chorus of international criticism.
The United Arab Emirates “strongly condemned the assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard by an Israeli minister under the protection of Israeli forces,” in a statement without mentioning Ben Gvir by name.
The Gulf nation has been trying to maintain its support for the Palestinians while balancing its newly formed partnership with Israel. The country has issued condemnations in the past, particularly for events that increase tension over the holy sites in Jerusalem.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry “warned of the negative repercussions of such measures on security and stability” and called “on all parties to exercise restraint and responsibility and refrain from any measures that inflame the situation.”
Jordan condemned Ben Gvir’s visit in the “strongest” terms, calling it a “flagrant and unacceptable violation of international law and the historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem and its holy sites.”
Jordan’s monarchy has been the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites since 1924 and sees itself as guarantor of the religious rights of Muslims and Christians in the city.
The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation also issued a statement holding Israel accountable for the repercussions of the “aggression” against the Palestinian people.
A US embassy spokesperson 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.”
The British consulate in Jerusalem said in a statement on Facebook that it was “concerned” by Ben Gvir’s visit and said it “remains committed to the status quo.”
Netanyahu insisted Tuesday that his government was not seeking to change the rules on the site. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to strictly maintaining the status quo, unchanged, on the Temple Mount,” a statement from his office said.
“We will not be dictated by Hamas. Under the status quo, ministers have climbed the Temple Mount in recent years, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan; therefore, the claim that a change in the status quo has been made is unsubstantiated.”