Israel's Ben-Gvir visits Al Aqsa as Palestinians condemn 'unprecedented' provocation

National security minister at compound under heavy security

Israeli government minister Itamar Ben-Gvir walks past the Dome of the Rock at Haram Al Sharif, which also houses Al Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem. Photo: Ben Gvir / Twitter
Powered by automated translation

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem on Tuesday, raising tensions with Palestinians days after an ultra-right-wing government was sworn in.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry condemned it as “an unprecedented provocation”.

Mr Ben-Gvir was surrounded by heavy security after Palestinian warnings that his presence at the site would cause “an explosion”, Israel's public broadcaster Kan reported.

The US said that any unilateral action that jeopardises the status quo of Jerusalem holy sites was unacceptable adding that, "The United States stands firmly for the preservation of the status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem."

Appearing to respond to a cascade of condemnation from governments across the region and beyond, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his government was in favour of “strictly keeping the status quo,” at the holy site, whereby Jordan remains the custodian and only Muslims are allowed to worship there, while other faiths are allowed only to visit.

The move could result in violence and put Israel at odds with Jordan, which denounced the visit of the minister to the site, with authorities saying they “condemned” his “storming” of Al Aqsa.

The UAE was among several Gulf countries to respond to the visit.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation called on Israel to “assume responsibility for reducing escalation and instability in the region”.

The ministry “reiterated its firm position on the need to provide full protection for Al Aqsa Mosque and halt serious and provocative violations taking place there”.

Saudi Arabia also condemned the “provocative” visit, without naming Mr Ben-Gvir.

Mairav Zonszein, senior Israel-Palestine analyst with Crisis Group International, told The National that Mr Ben-Gvir “has made a career out of provoking confrontations and violence with Palestinians in his hometown area of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and also in Sheikh Jarrah and East Jerusalem”.

“Even more tensions and even more provocations” are likely to be seen in areas with a large Palestinian presence, including Al Aqsa, as Mr Ben-Gvir assumes direct control of Israel's police, said Ms Zonszein.

Mr Ben-Gvir said on Tuesday that the new Israeli government would “not surrender to the threats of Hamas” after the Palestinian militant group said his presence would be a “red line”.

He said the site was “the most important place for the people of Israel”.

“We maintain the freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians, but Jews will also go up to [Al Aqsa], and those who make threats must be dealt with — with an iron hand,” he said.

Jordan's Foreign Ministry later released a statement condemning the visit “in the strongest terms”.

Israel “bears full responsibility for the dangerous consequences of this escalation, which undermines all efforts exerted to prevent the escalation of violence”, said spokesman Sinan Al Majali.

The US has also made it clear it opposes any steps that could change the status quo of Jerusalem's holy sites, ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Kan.

Mr Ben-Gvir, who was sworn into office on Thursday, often visited the compound as a member of parliament and has called for Jewish worship there. It is banned under a status-quo agreement with Jordan.

He was banned from the Knesset for inciting racism and is a staunch opponent of Palestinian statehood.

The compound is the third holiest site in Islam and is the focal point of Israeli-Palestinian tension.

Israeli incursions at the site led to the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005 and recent wars in Gaza.

Mr Ben-Gvir's visit was approved by police and city officials after a security assessment with the minister on Monday, according to Kan.

Mr Netanyahu did not advise the minister against visiting the compound, his Likud party has said, despite concern from both Israeli and foreign officials that it could lead to violence.

'People will die'

Opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid said on Twitter on Monday that Mr Ben-Gvir “must not go” to the site.

“This is a provocation that will lead to violence and cost human lives,” he said, urging Mr Netanyahu to “stand up and tell him [Mr Ben-Gvir]” because “people will die”.

Israeli incursions at Al Aqsa compound often end in violence in the Palestinian territories of West Bank and Gaza.

In 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the site, sparking riots that spiralled into the five-year Second Intifada, which led to the deaths of more than 4,000 people.

In April, Arab League leaders said Israel had “no right” to allow Jewish worship at Al Aqsa, saying only Jordanian authorities could decide if non-Muslims can enter the site.

Updated: January 03, 2023, 6:17 PM