National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the Temple Mount early on Tuesday morning, his first trip to the holy site since taking up his ministerial post last week. The visit came hours after reports that Ben Gvir had agreed to put off the visit following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and despite condemnation from the opposition and threats from the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.
“Our government will not surrender to threats from Hamas,” Ben Gvir said at the conclusion of his visit, which reportedly lasted some 15 minutes and passed without immediate incident.
“The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel. We maintain freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians, but Jews also go up to the site, and those who make threats must be dealt with with an iron fist,” he said.
The visit by Ben Gvir, whose ministry is in charge of policing, was held after an assessment with security and police officials, his office said in a statement.
After his meeting with Netanyahu, Ben Gvir met later Monday with Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, as well as Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and the Jerusalem district commander, who “determined there was no obstacle” to the visit, the statement said.
“Security officials who participated in the assessment of the situation believed that capitulating in the face of threats would be a reward for terror and legitimize actions against Israel,” the statement said. There was no comment on the matter from the police or the Shin Bet.
Netanyahu on Monday discussed with Ben Gvir the latter’s stated intention to visit the site. The content of the conversation was not made public. A statement issued by Ben Gvir’s office after their talks had said he would visit the Temple Mount “in the upcoming weeks.”
Hebrew media reports indicated that the two had agreed that Ben Gvir would hold off on visiting the flashpoint site for the time being. However, Likud insisted this was not the case. Rather, it said, after discussions with security officials, Netanyahu avoided recommending to the far-right minister that he refrain from visiting.
The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday condemned the visit, calling it an “unprecedented provocation.”
“Netanyahu bears responsibility for this attack on Al-Aqsa,” the PA said in a statement.
The Temple Mount is believed by Jews to be the historic location of the two Jewish Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. It is also the third holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.
Provocations and violence at the site have frequently turned into wider conflagrations.
Ben Gvir’s Tuesday visit was held on the 10th of Tevet, a Jewish fast day mourning the events that led to the destruction of the Temple.
Labor MK Gilad Kariv said Ben Gvir’s decision showed he was prioritizing the “promotion of an extreme nationalistic worldview” over Israeli citizens’ safety.
“Particularly on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet, it is important to remember that the connection between political extremism, intoxication from power and government corruption led to the destruction of the Temple,” Kariv said in a statement. “Standing up against these phenomena is essential to guaranteeing the future of Israel.”
Ben Gvir, who has been to the Temple Mount on numerous occasions in the past, had announced on Sunday his intention to visit the site for the first time as a minister.
In response, Hamas had warned Israel that Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount would be “a detonator” and vowed resistance.
The Haaretz daily reported Monday that diplomats from several unnamed Arab states reached out to Jerusalem to express their concern over Ben Gvir’s planned visit, saying such steps could lead to a deterioration of the security situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the broader region.
They noted that Passover and Ramadan will again fall at the same time this year and that “extreme statements and actions by senior officials of the new government, along with the sense of desperation on the Palestinian side, may take their toll,” a source familiar with the matter told the newspaper.
Ben Gvir’s announcement of his intended visit was criticized by the opposition, with opposition leader Yair Lapid warning that such a visit would “cost lives” and urging Netanyahu to prevent the visit.
Ben Gvir is head of one of the three far-right parties in Netanyahu’s nascent coalition.
The newly minted national security minister, who has long been accused of being a provocateur, made several trips to the Temple Mount as an activist and Knesset member and has also led contentious nationalist marches through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. On several occasions, he set up an ad hoc office in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which has also been at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, kindling unrest.
His last visit to the Temple Mount was about three months ago, ahead of the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.
Despite Ben Gvir’s rhetoric on the issue ahead of the elections, he agreed to maintain the status quo at holy sites, including the Temple Mount, in coalition agreements reached with Netanyahu before the government was sworn in.
Ben Gvir has long been an advocate of formally altering the Temple Mount status quo, in which Muslims are allowed to pray and enter with few restrictions, and Jews can visit only during limited time slots via a single gate and walk on a predetermined route, closely accompanied by police. Jews are not allowed to pray at the site, although recent years have increasingly seen police allow some silent prayer.
Palestinians and most of the international community vehemently reject any changes to the current situation, although most Palestinians also object to any Israeli Jewish presence at the site, including of police officers tasked with preserving security.
Netanyahu has sought to assure Israel’s allies that he will not allow any changes, and he had a clause included in all of his coalition deals stipulating that the status quo “with regard to the holy places” will be preserved.
However, critics point to what they say has been the gradual erosion of the policy, with Jewish pilgrims often seen praying quietly at the site in recent years as Israeli police look on.