hard line israeli minister visits volatile jerusalem holy site

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist national security minister, toured the site just days after taking office, drawing a furious reaction from Palestinian leaders.

In one of his first acts as Israel’s minister of national security, the ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir on Tuesday made a provocative visit to a Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims, defying threats of repercussions from the militant group Hamas and eliciting a furious reaction from the Palestinian leadership and condemnations from the Arab world.

The visit under heavy guard to the site — a frequent flash point in the Old City of Jerusalem where past Israeli actions have set off broader conflagrations — was the first by such a high-level Israeli official in years, and passed without incident. But coming two days after Mr. Ben-Gvir took office, it was an early indicator of the difficulties Israel’s new government, its most right-wing and religiously conservative yet, will face in the domestic and international arenas.

The Palestinians and many Muslims in the region view such visits, particularly by Israeli politicians with a nationalist and religious agenda, as part of an effort to alter the status of the site and give Jewish worshipers more rights there. The site is revered by Jews as Temple Mount, the location of two ancient temples, and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the compound containing Al Aqsa Mosque and other important Islamic shrines.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit took place at about 7 a.m., and lasted for less than 15 minutes. While at the site, Mr. Ben-Gvir said: “The Israeli government will not surrender to a murderous organization, vile terrorist organization,” referring to Hamas.

“The Temple Mount is the most important site in the world to the Jewish people,” he continued. “It is open to everyone. Muslims and Christians come here, and yes, Jews too.”

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry condemned the visit as “an unprecedented provocation” and said it held Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel responsible for what it called a “flagrant assault” on the holy site.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, the coastal Palestinian enclave where Israel has fought several wars in recent years, had warned that any visit to the site by Mr. Ben-Gvir would be “a detonator” that would trigger an explosion.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit highlighted the uncompromising approach to the Palestinians that has been promised by the new government at a time of growing violence in the occupied territories. Some senior officials have called for the annexation by Israel of the occupied West Bank, territory that the Palestinians see as part of their future state according to the internationally accepted principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Pool photo by Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

On Monday, the new Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, attacked the Palestinian leadership at the ceremony marking his first day in office, saying its members should stand trial at The Hague for war crimes. His remarks came after the United Nations General Assembly voted on Friday to approve a resolution requesting that the International Court of Justice intervene and render an opinion on the Israeli occupation and the state of the conflict.

In 2000, Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition, visited the sacred site surrounded by hundreds of police officers in riot gear. That visit was widely credited as a factor that set off the deadly second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted for several years.

The holiest site for Jews, and the third holiest for Muslims, the compound was conquered by Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Under an uneasy arrangement that has prevailed for decades under Jordanian custodianship, Jews are permitted to visit, as are non-Muslim tourists, but they are not supposed to pray there. That norm, long enforced by the Israeli police in the interest of preserving public order, has been fraying in recent years.

The official rabbinical authorities say it is prohibited for Jews to enter the compound for fear that they may tread unwittingly on forbidden holy ground, and Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly issued assurances that there has been no change in the status quo at the site.

But religious nationalists have increasingly made a point of visiting the mount and demanding equal prayer rights for Jews there. Mr. Ben-Gvir went regularly before becoming a minister, often at times of high tension.

The United States, Israel’s most important ally, has warned against any change to the arrangements at the site. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last month that the Biden administration would “unequivocally oppose any acts that undermined the prospects of a two-state solution” to the conflict.

“Disruption to the historic status quo at holy sites” would be such an act, he added.

On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Israel reiterated that position. The British and French ambassadors to Israel issued similar statements on Twitter.

Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In response to reporters’ questions at a news briefing on Tuesday, Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said, “Regarding this visit, we are deeply concerned by any unilateral actions that have the potential to exacerbate tensions,” adding that the Biden administration wanted to see the opposite — a reduction of tensions.

The hard-line policies of the new government could also have repercussions with Arab states, even as Israel has in recent years forged diplomatic ties with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and has maintained decades-old peace treaties with neighboring Egypt and Jordan.

King Abdullah II of Jordan said in an interview with CNN last week that he was prepared to get “into a conflict” if Israel tried to change the status of the Jerusalem holy site. After Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it would “follow it up at all levels,” in coordination with Jordan.

On Tuesday, the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemned Mr. Ben-Gvir’s actions, saying the visit, together with Israel’s repeated incursions in the occupied West Bank, was a harbinger of “further escalation and represent a dangerous trend that the international community must work to stop immediately.”

The United Arab Emirates condemned Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit, as did Saudi Arabia, a major player in the Muslim world. Mr. Netanyahu has set establishing open diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia as a goal for his new government. Egypt warned of the “negative repercussions of such measures on security and stability” and Morocco said it was following the event closely.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying the prime minister was “committed to the strict preservation, with no change, of the status quo on Temple Mount.” But it also added: “We will not capitulate to the dictates of Hamas.”

Mr. Ben-Gvir, who has a history of provocative actions and has been convicted in the past of incitement to racism and support for a terrorist group, had made no secret of his intention to visit the site as a minister. “Temple Mount is important, and as I said, I intend to ascend the mount,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday, the day he took office.

But the timing of the visit was intentionally obscured, presumably to prevent Palestinian protesters from gathering at the site to confront him.

The Israeli news media reported that Mr. Ben-Gvir might be intending to tour the site on Tuesday, a fast day in the Jewish calendar that is traditionally marked with pilgrimages to Jerusalem. On Monday evening, Mr. Netanyahu met with Mr. Ben-Gvir to discuss the issue, after which the Israeli news media reported that Mr. Ben-Gvir had decided to postpone his visit to some undetermined time in the coming weeks.

Not wanting to be seen as capitulating to threats from Hamas, Mr. Netanyahu’s office put out a statement that evening saying that after consultations with security officials, the prime minister had not asked Mr. Ben-Gvir to refrain from visiting the site.

After the visit, Mr. Ben-Gvir posted a photograph on Twitter of himself at the site, with one of the Islamic shrines in the background. “Temple Mount is open to all,” he wrote, “and if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me, that will deter me, they had better understand that times have changed.”

Palestinian-Israeli tensions in Jerusalem, culminating in an Israeli police raid of the Aqsa compound, set off 11 days of fierce fighting between Israel and militant groups in Gaza in May 2021, as well as a rare burst of interethnic violence inside Israel. Clashes at the compound prompted rocket fire from Gaza in April 2022.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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