Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Tuesday visited the Jerusalem compound known as the Temple Mount by Jews and the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, in a move that drew international condemnation.
Videos published on 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 complex under a decades-old agreement; Ben Gvir believes that Jews should have the right to pray there too.
Palestinians immediately objected to the visit.
“We strongly condemn extremist Ben Gvir’s storming of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque, and we 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 itself. The lawmaker’s visit was his first since he was sworn in last week as national security minister, in what is set 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, the leader of the far-right Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party, has previously been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism. As national security minister, he oversees police in Israel as well as some police activity in the occupied West Bank.
Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs Gaza, warned that Ben Gvir’s visit would be a “precursor for the ignition of the region” and it will be “pouring fuel over fire.”
“The Israeli government of which I am a member will not surrender to a vile murdering organization,” Ben Gvir responded in a tweet. “The Temple Mount is open to everyone and if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me it will deter me, let them understand that times have changed. There is a government in Jerusalem!”
Under the so-called status quo agreement dating back to 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 complex at certain times. Israel and other states agreed to maintain status quo 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 instances of Jewish visitors conducting prayers on the compound, sparking outrage from Muslim authorities and forced removals by Israeli police.
Visits by Israeli political figures have historically preceded periods of violence between Israel and Palestinians. The conservative Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the complex in September 2000 contributed to the start of the Second Intifada, a yearslong Palestinian uprising against Israel.
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,” and said that it’s time for Netanyahu to tell Ben Gvir, “you don’t go up to the Temple Mount because people will die.”
The visit also drew a chorus of international criticism.
The UAE “strongly condemned the storming of 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 attempting to maintain its support for the Palestinians while balancing its newly formed partnership with Israel. The country has issued past condemnations, particularly over events that raise tension over the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Egypt’s 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 would inflame the situation.”
Jordan condemned Ben Gvir’s visit in the “strongest” terms, calling it “a flagrant and unacceptable violation of international law, and of the historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem and its sanctities.”
Jordan’s monarchy has been the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites since 1924 and sees itself as the guarantor of the religious rights of Muslims and Christians in the city.
The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also issued a statement holding Israel responsible for the repercussions of “aggression” against Palestinian people.
A US embassy spokesperson said: “Ambassador (Tom) Nides has been very clear in conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites. 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 at the site. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to strictly maintaining the status quo, without changes, on the Temple Mount,” a statement from his office said.
“We will not be dictated to by Hamas. Under the status quo, ministers have gone up to the Temple Mount in recent years, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan; therefore, the claim that a change has been made in the status quo is without foundation.”