Israel far-right minister enters Al-Aqsa in ‘provocation’

Palestinians and several Arab countries condemn Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit, which they fear is aimed at changing the holy site’s status quo.

Visitors gather near the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City January 3, 2023. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Jewish visitors gather near the Dome of the Rock in the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have joined Palestinians in condemning a far-right Israeli minister’s brief visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, with the Palestinian leadership calling the intrusion “an unprecedented provocation”.

Tuesday’s visit by Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir risks stoking tensions with Palestinians, with the Hamas group that governs the besieged Gaza Strip warning that such a move would cross a “red line”.

Ben-Gvir, who was seen at Islam’s third holiest site under heavy security, said: “Our government will not surrender to the threats of Hamas.”

The Israeli far-right leader has long called for greater Jewish access to the holy site, which is viewed by Palestinians as provocative and as a potential precursor to Israel taking complete control over the compound. Leading rabbis forbid Jews from praying at the site.

Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter after his visit that the site “is open to all and if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me it will deter me, they should understand that times have changed”.

Ofir Gendelman, who has long served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic-language spokesman, released a video saying that the “situation is completely calm” at the holy site following Ben-Gvir’s departure.

The visit appears to have been calculated to avoid a direct confrontation with Palestinians, having come early in the morning, and a day after Ben-Gvir had appeared to backtrack from his plans, thereby avoiding a gathering of Palestinians at the site.

‘A dangerous escalation of the conflict’

However, the Palestinian foreign ministry said it “strongly condemns the storming of Al-Aqsa mosque by the extremist minister Ben-Gvir and views it as unprecedented provocation and a dangerous escalation of the conflict”.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on Palestinians to “confront the raids into Al Aqsa mosque”. He accused Ben-Gvir of staging the visit as part of a bid to turn the shrine “into a Jewish temple”.

Jordan, Egypt and the UAE, which have peace treaties with Israel, have condemned what they called Ben-Gvir’s “storming” of Al-Aqsa. Amman summoned the Israeli ambassador and said the visit had violated international law and “the historic and legal status quo in Jerusalem”.

Saudi Arabia, with which Netanyahu wants to forge a peace deal, also criticised Ben-Gvir’s action. Turkey, which has recently ended a long-running diplomatic rift with Israel, condemned the visit as “provocative” as well.

And Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that any infringement of the decades-long status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque could lead to an explosion in the region, not just inside Palestinian territories.

When asked about the visit, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said any unilateral action that jeopardises the status quo of Jerusalem holy sites is unacceptable.

“The United States stands firmly for preservation of the status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem,” the spokesperson said, adding that the US calls on Netanyahu to preserve his commitment to the status quo of holy sites.

The UN Secretary-General also stressed on the importance of upholding the status quo in the holy sites, according to Deputy UN Spokesperson Farhan Haq.

Netanyahu issued a statement late on Tuesday claiming he “is committed to strictly maintaining the status quo, without changes, on the Temple Mount [Al-Aqsa Compound].”

Israel’s opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid had warned on Monday that Ben-Gvir’s planned entrance to the compound would lead to violence, and called it a “deliberate provocation that will put lives in danger”.

Ben-Gvir was sworn in last week as part of a new far-right government led by Netanyahu.

Islam’s third holiest site

At the compound, Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, only Muslim worship is allowed under the status quo. The Israeli far right has been attempting to change this and allow Jewish prayer at the site, despite opposition from many ultra-Orthodox Jews and prohibition from leading rabbis.

Many far-right Israelis have been calling for a Jewish temple to be built there in place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s entrance to the site in 2000 sparked the second Palestinian Intifada or uprising.

Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said Ben-Gvir spent a short amount of time in the compound “in the early hours of this morning”.

“That’s no surprise because of the provocation that it would cause especially amongst the Palestinians and the Muslim world,” Khairat said.

“[Ben-Gvir] also has sweeping powers over the police, [so it] came as no surprise that this decision [to enter the Al-Aqsa compound] would happen very quickly.

“We’re going to expect a lot of tension from the Palestinians. Already, security has been stepped up amongst the Israelis.”

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem told Al Jazeera that Ben-Gvir’s move “is a continuation of the Zionist occupation’s aggression against our sanctities and its war on its Arab identity.

“Al-Aqsa Mosque was and will remain Palestinian, Arab and Islamic property, and no fascist force or person can change this fact,” he said.

Analyst Nasser al-Hidmi told Al Jazeera from Jerusalem that he believes “this raid was a publicity stunt” to demonstrate “the occupation’s sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and that the new government does not bend to threats by the Palestinian armed resistance movements.

“There was an agreement between [Ben-Gvir] and Netanyahu – a discussion – that the raid would take place in this manner in order to both demonstrate sovereignty while also avoiding provoking the Palestinian people in Jerusalem,” al-Hidmi said.

“[The raid] happened at a time when there were few Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the visit lasted 13 minutes. All of this is an expression of Ben-Gvir’s fears.”

Ben-Gvir holds far-right views towards the Palestinians and has called for their displacement. He has repeatedly joined Israeli settlers in entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which has led to confrontations with Palestinians in the past.

Israeli forces stormed the compound in May 2021, leading to conflict with Palestinians which led to Israel attacking Gaza later the same month.

Ben-Gvir was also a precursor to a wave of escalation in occupied East Jerusalem after setting up an office in February in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, where Palestinians face mass expulsion.

A settler in Kiryat Araba – one of the most right-wing settlements in the illegally occupied West Bank, which is not recognised under international law – Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism, destroying property, possessing a “terror” organisation’s propaganda material and supporting a “terror” organisation – Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach group – which he joined when he was 16.

Ben-Gvir was also notorious for displaying on his wall a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994.

Last November, Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned in a leaked audio that “the whole world is worried” about Ben-Gvir’s views.

Al-Hidmi said that in the coming year, “more extremism and more violations against the Palestinian people and their holy sites” can be expected.

“Hamas and the armed groups in Gaza are not interested in going into another confrontation with the occupation, but they are interested in mobilising the West Bank. It is clear that the West Bank is responsive to this direction, which is worrying the occupation.”

Palestinian Islamic Jihad spokesperson Tariq Selmi told Al Jazeera that “the resistance is fully prepared and vigilant”.

“It is conducting a continuous assessment of everything that is going on, with its hand on the trigger of action. The bullets of our fighters in Jenin and Nablus will inevitably reach Jerusalem,” Selmi said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies