Wave of international criticism after Ben Gvir visits flashpoint Temple Mount

There was a wave of international condemnation on Tuesday after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit in the morning to the flashpoint Temple Mount site, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as police reportedly raised their alertness level in Jerusalem.

Jordan, which views itself as a custodian of the Temple Mount — a status Israel does not recognize, although it acknowledged the kingdom’s “special role” at the site in the countries’ 1994 peace treaty — said it strongly condemned the far-right minister’s visit .

“Jordan condemns in the most severe terms the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and violation of its sanctity,” the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to the Reuters news agency.

Ben Gvir did not enter the mosque. He made a 15-minute visit to the Temple Mount compound around 7 am — during the time Jews are allowed to enter the site — which he has done before on numerous occasions, although Tuesday’s trip was his first as a minister, causing it to carry more weight.

A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Israel responded to the minister’s visit, saying the status quo must be maintained at holy sites, and that Jerusalem understood Washington’s position on the matter.

“Ambassador 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 spokesperson said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

The United Arab Emirates condemned Ben Gvir and denounced his “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.” The Gulf nation also called for an end to “serious and provocative violations.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been slated to soon visit the UAE on his first official trip, but it was postponed on Tuesday due to “logistical reasons.” Officials denied there was any connection between the trip’s cancellation and Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, the Ynet news site reported.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry also joined the wave of condemnation over “the provocative action by an Israeli official who stormed” the flashpoint site. Netanyahu has frequently expressed hope for progress in normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has conditioned the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The French embassy in Israel confirmed its “absolute commitment” to the preservation of the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem.

“Any gesture aimed at casting doubt on it carries a risk of escalation and must be avoided,” the French statement read.

The United Kingdom issued a similar statement, with Israel envoy Ambassador Neil Wigan tweeting: “The UK remains committed to supporting the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. It is important that all actors avoid actions at those sites that inflame tensions.”

However, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu was committed to “strictly protecting the status quo on the Temple Mount without any change.”

The official said that Israel “will not surrender to Hamas directives,” and noted that as part of the status quo, ministers have visited the Temple Mount in the past, including former public security minister Gilad Erdan.

“The claim that there is a change in the status quo is baseless,” the official concluded.

Ben Gvir’s visit came hours after reports said that he had agreed to postpone his planned trip following a meeting with Netanyahu, and despite condemnation from the opposition and threats from the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

According to Channel 12 news, police raised the alert level in Jerusalem in the hours after Ben Gvir’s visit. There was no official announcement on the matter.

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.

Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. However, it allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount.

Provocations and violence at the site have frequently turned into wider conflagrations.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who on Monday warned the visit would lead to bloodshed, said that Ben Gvir had highlighted weakness on the part of Netanyahu.

“The State of Israel does not accept dictates from anyone regarding its security, but to quarrel with half the world just so that Ben Gvir can spend 13 minutes on the Temple Mount is political irresponsibility and incredible weakness from Netanyahu in the face of his ministers, ” Lapid tweeted.

Visitors to the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023 (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Diplomats from several unnamed Arab states reportedly reached out to Jerusalem ahead of Ben Gvir’s visit to express their concern, saying such steps could lead to a deterioration of the security situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the broader region.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry condemned the visit on Tuesday, calling it an “unprecedented provocation and a dangerous escalation of the conflict.”

“Netanyahu bears responsibility for this attack on Al-Aqsa,” the PA said in a statement.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh claimed such “incursions” were an attempt “to turn the Al-Aqsa Mosque into a Jewish temple.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh holds a briefing with foreign press at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 10, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

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 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.

“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.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Hamas terrorist group has warned that a visit by Ben Gvir to the site would be a “detonator,” and vowed resistance.

MK Zvika Fogel from Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party was asked Tuesday during an interview with the Ynet news outlet about the terror group potentially reacting to the visit with rocket fire.

Fogel said if this were to happen, “If it’s up to me, Gaza burns.”

“We’ll start a policy of targeted killings of [Hamas] platoon commanders and above,” said Fogel, a former IDF general and designated chair of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee.

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel in Jerusalem on November 14, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Fogel also said that despite a coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud to maintain the status quo at holy sites including the Temple Mount, the issue would be raised by Otzma Yehudit.

“I assume that in the future we will request a discussion in the government about changing the status quo,” he said.

On Monday, Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Almog Cohen told Kan news that the faction’s “aspiration is, yes, God willing, for all religions to be able to pray on the Temple Mount,” Reuters reported.

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, while 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.

Israeli security forces escort a group of religious Jews as they visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 31, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

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.

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.

Leave a Comment