‘Poison, lies’: Israeli, Palestinian envoys spar at fiery UN session on Temple Mount

NEW YORK — Israel’s envoy to the United Nations lashed out at the Palestinians for what he described as “poison and lies” at an emergency Security Council session on National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s recent visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The council’s members, including the US, repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining the status quo at the flashpoint compound, while the Palestinians warned of violence and denied any Israeli claim to the site, the holiest in Judaism.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan said the meeting, held in response to the visit by Ben Gvir on Tuesday, was “absurd” and hypocritical. Ben Gvir’s 13-minute visit to the site was met with international condemnations and expressions of concern.

“We are here discussing the peaceful 13-minute visit of a Jewish minister to the holiest Jewish site under the sovereignty of the liberal democracy of Israel,” said Erdan, who blasted the 15-member Security Council for not holding similar meetings in response to Russian actions in Ukraine, Palestinian terror or Iranian attacks on international shipping.

“This meeting creates a sense of emergency over a non-event,” he added.

The meeting at UN headquarters in New York was formally requested by China and the United Arab Emirates, which is the Arab League’s current representative on the Security Council. The request was made on behalf of the Palestinian and Jordanian missions, which are not members of the council.

The Security Council, currently chaired by Japan, has not issued a formal statement or resolution responding to Ben Gvir’s visit.

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

Erdan described Jewish reverence for the Temple Mount, calling it “the center of our universe.” He argued Israel had mistakenly agreed to the status quo in 1967 to alleviate the conflict and said the Palestinians were attempting to deny Jewish ties to the site.

The status quo governing the compound allows Muslims 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, and cannot openly pray.

The Temple Mount is revered by Jews as the historic location of the two Jewish Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. It is also the third-holiest site for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

“For years the Palestinians have orchestrated and advanced a poisonous campaign to obliterate any connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount,” Erdan said, highlighting a recent General Assembly resolution that referred to the site by only its Arabic name, Haram al-Sharif .

“Tragically, the Palestinian terror authority prefers violence over tolerance. They are so intolerant that they not only want to ban Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount but also Jewish visitors. Pure antisemitism,” he said, adding that he also visited the site as police minister in 2017.

“Minister Ben Gvir’s recent visit to the Temple Mount was not an incursion to Al Aqsa or another fabrication,” Erdan continued. “It was in line with the status quo.”

“Jews are allowed to visit the holiest site in Judaism. It is the right of every Jew. Israel has not harmed the status quo and has no plans to do so.”

He said the UN’s focus on the issue “legitimizes the poison and lies of the Palestinians.”

The Palestinian envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour, warned of violence and personally attacked Erdan for a previous visit he made to the site.

“Our people are running out of patience and the moderation and sense of responsibility we display should never be construed as weakness. The record shows that Israel’s persistence on this path does not lead to surrender, but to uprising,” Mansour said, warning the site could become the “epicenter of religious conflict.”

He rejected Israeli claims to the site and called on the Security Council to take action against Israel.

“Haram al-Sharif is in occupied Palestinian territory,” Mansour said. “Israel has no claim and no right to sovereignty over occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem and therefore no right over Haram al-Sharif.”

“What red line does Israel need to cross for the Security Council to finally say ‘enough is enough?'” he said, claiming the new Israeli government was “unhinged” and engaging in “colonial rule” and war crimes.

He also said Israel was attacking Christians in the city, and claimed the status quo was “undermining our efforts to promote peaceful religious coexistence in the city.”

Riyad Mansour, Palestinian representative to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, January 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

US envoy Robert A. Wood told the Security Council that Washington was concerned about climbing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and decried “unilateral actions” at the Temple Mount, in an apparent criticism of the new Israeli government.

“We are concerned by any unilateral acts that exacerbate tensions or undermine the viability of a two-state solution,” Wood said. “The US firmly supports the preservation of the historical status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem, especially on the Haram al-Sharif Temple Mount.”

He said US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken both firmly support the status quo and that the US appreciates Jordan’s role overseeing the holy site.

“In this spirit, we oppose any and all unilateral actions that depart from the historical status quo, which are unacceptable,” Wood said.

“We note that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s platform calls for the preservation” of the status quo, he said. “We expect the government of Israel to follow through on that commitment.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the government is sworn in at the Knesset, December 29, 2022. (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP)

The Security Council has the ability to pass legally binding resolutions. A statement, unlike a resolution, requires the unanimous approval of all members and is not binding.

The US effectively has veto power against both statements and resolutions and has often taken Israel’s side at the UN, arguing that it is not the platform for pursuing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel and the US have long argued that the UN is unfairly focused on Israel. The General Assembly called on the International Court of Justice to investigate Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, and there are two open-ended UN probes into Israel, with no other country subjected to such scrutiny. Members of both probes have made antisemitic statements.

Last year, the General Assembly approved 15 anti-Israel resolutions, more than against all other countries combined.

At the start of Thursday’s emergency session, UAE representative to the UN Mohamed Abushahab said his country “strongly condemns the storming of Al Aqsa Mosque courtyard by an Israeli minister.”

Tourists visit the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, on January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Abushahab said the visit shows a “lack of commitment to the existing historical and legal status of the holy sites in Jerusalem and further destabilizes the fragile situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Jordan, which sees itself as the protector of the site, said it “condemns with the strongest terms the storming by the minister of national security of the Al Aqsa Mosque.” The Jordanian envoy also attacked Erdan over the Israeli’s characterization of Jordan’s occupation of Jerusalem between 1948-1967.

Other countries including the UK, Russia and China also spoke out in support of the status quo.

Khaled Khiari, assistant to the secretary-general, said at the start of the meeting that although Ben Gvir’s visit “was not accompanied or followed by violence, it is seen as particularly inflammatory given Mr. Ben Gvir’s past advocacy for changes to the status quo.”

“I reiterate the Secretary General’s call for all parties to refrain from steps that could escalate tensions in and around the Holy Sites, and for all to uphold the status quo,” he said, adding that the UN is in close contact with relevant parties and is working to de-escalate tensions.

Ben Gvir’s visit did not violate the fragile status quo at the site, but was seen as a provocation due to his far-right positions and past support for Jewish prayer at the site. After the visit, he refused to say whether he would push for changing the status quo at the site to enable Jewish prayer. He also acknowledged that the police have allowed Jewish prayer to quietly take place on the site in violation of the status quo. Ben Gvir’s ministry oversees the police force.

Israel insists that it is committed to maintaining the status quo and that ministers, including Erdan, have visited the site in the past.

The unwritten policy governing the compound allows Muslims 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, and cannot openly pray.

The Temple Mount is revered by Jews as the historic location of the two Jewish Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. It is also the third-holiest site for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

Ben Gvir’s visit Tuesday — held on the 10th of Tevet, a Jewish fast day mourning the events that led to the destruction of the First Temple — was his first trip to the holy site since taking up his ministerial post last week. Ben Gvir is the head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, a part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Many Palestinians reject the notion that the Temple Mount is holy to Jews, having accused Israel and Zionists for around a century of plotting to destroy the mosque and replace it with a Jewish temple — a notion that is rejected by mainstream Israeli society.

The Temple Mount has been the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, and tensions at the disputed compound have fueled past rounds of violence.

A visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in September 2000 was followed by significant Palestinian riots and clashes that morphed into the Second Intifada. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian rioters seeking to prevent Jews from entering the site fueled an 11-day war with Hamas in 2021.

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