Israel’s Ben-Gvir visits Al Aqsa mosque compound, Palestinians incensed


by Reuters

Other members of Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party still advocate such a move.

Israel’s new far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir briefly visited the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on Tuesday, a site also revered by Jews, drawing condemnation from the Palestinians and several Arab countries.

“The Temple Mount is open to all,” Ben-Gvir said on Twitter, using the Jewish name for the site. Video footage showed him strolling at the periphery of the compound, surrounded by a heavy security detail and flanked by a fellow Orthodox Jew.

In an apparent effort to calm anger over the visit, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the premier was fully committed to the site’s decades-old status quo allowing only Muslim worship there.

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

An Israeli official said the 15-minute visit by Ben-Gvir, a senior member of Netanyahu’s new nationalist-religious cabinet, complied with an arrangement that allows non-Muslims to visit on condition they do not pray. He did not approach the mosque.

Although the visit at the flashpoint site passed without incident, it risks worsening frictions with Palestinians after an upsurge in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the past year.

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”.

Israel denies having such designs. An official at Netanyahu’s office said “claims of a change in the status quo are groundless”.

Jordan, the custodian of Al Aqsa and whose 1994 peace deal with Israel is unpopular at home, summoned the Israeli ambassador and said the visit had violated international law and “the historic and legal status quo in Jerusalem”.

The European Union’s Mideast envoy Sven Koopmans said on Twitter: “The status quo on the #HolySites and the custodianship by the King of #Jordan, internationally agreed, are essential to regional peace, stability and the equilibrium between the major religions in #Jerusalem, of great concern to us all.”

Ben-Gvir once advocated ending the ban on Jewish prayer at the site, but has been more non-committal on the issue since aligning with Netanyahu, now in his sixth term. Other members of Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party still advocate such a move.

Bleak Outlook

The rise of Ben-Gvir in Netanyahu’s government, one of the most right-wing in Israeli history, has deepened Palestinian anger about their long-failed efforts to secure a state in territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Hours before the visit, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager in a clash in nearby Bethlehem, medical officials and witnesses said, the latest in a growing death toll in the West Bank. Israel’s army said troops fired on Palestinians who threw explosives, rocks and firebombs at them.

A spokesman for Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that rejects coexistence with Israel and which controls Gaza, said of Ben-Gvir’s visit: “A continuation of this behaviour will bring all parties closer to a big clash.”

Al Aqsa is a symbol for Palestinian hopes of securing a state, a goal that looks ever bleaker with Ben-Gvir and other far-right allies now in Netanyahu’s government.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, “has been very clear in conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites”, the embassy said in a statement.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are among the few Arab states to have recognised Israel, also condemned the visit. 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.

The Al Aqsa compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is Islam’s third holiest site. It is also Judaism’s most sacred site, a vestige of two ancient temples of the faith.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem its indivisible capital – a status not recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, where the compound is located, as capital of a state also taking in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday, pious Jews fasted to commemorate a Babylonian siege on the first of those temples, in the 6th century BC.

Ben-Gvir oversees Israeli police who are formally tasked with enforcing the ban on Jewish prayer at the compound. He said that freedom of movement would be upheld there, without any mention of freedom of worship.

“If Hamas thinks that it can deter me with threats, it should understand that times have changed,” Ben-Gvir said on Twitter. “There is a government in Jerusalem!”

Not far from the compound, Israel police said on Tuesday they were investigating the vandalising of gravestones at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery.

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