Right-wing Israeli minister challenges own government with visit to Temple Mount

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, visited a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem on Tuesday, despite reported objections by the prime minister and senior security officials.

Israeli media said that Benjamin Netanyahu and others warned that a provocative visit to what Jewish Israelis refer to as the Temple Mount in the heart of the Old City could worsen an already escalating conflict with Palestinians and embitter relations with the wider Arab world.

While there were no immediate demonstrations in Jerusalem, the move drew condemnations from nations across the region, including ones with which Israel is hoping to build new ties. Jordan summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, and Netanyahu’s first trip to the United Arab Emirates since signing a normalization deal there in 2020 was delayed after Abu Dhabi called for an end to the “serious and provocative violations.”

Israel’s new far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir briefly visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on Jan. 3. (Video: Reuters)

On Tuesday morning, Ben Gvir said that he would not “surrender” to threats by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza, over his planned visit to the contested site.

“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,” he tweeted, along with a photo of himself flanked by security officers.

A visit to the site by Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, in 2000 with an army of security guards set off the years of fighting of the second intifada. More recently, confrontations have been sparked by trips made by right-wing Israeli lawmakers to the site, which is revered in Judaism. Palestinians see these moves as part of an effort to extend Israeli control over the site — which also is revered by Muslims, who call it the Noble Sanctuary.

In May 2021, Ben Gvir’s support of settlers in an East Jerusalem neighborhood near the entrance to the Temple Mount was among the catalysts of an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Tensions increased steadily throughout 2022, which was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the end of the second intifada in 2005. A spate of Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the spring were met with near-nightly Israeli military raids targeting assailants as well as civilians, according to human rights groups. On Tuesday, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli forces, already the third fatality in the West Bank this year.

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Ben Gvir’s visit came less than a week after the inauguration of Israel’s new government, which is led by Netanyahu but anchored by a bloc of once-fringe far-right parties whose members have vowed to annex the West Bank and extinguish any remaining possibilities for a two-state solution, in which a Palestinian state would exist alongside Israel.

Ben Gvir, now leading a new position as minister of national security responsible for the police, has long advocated a change to the status quo at the Temple Mount, which since the 1967 war has been managed by the Jordanian religious authority known as the Waqf. It prohibits any non-Muslim prayer atop the site, and Israeli police require non-Muslim visitors to store religious items, such as prayer books, at the entrance.

For decades, as the prospect of a two-state solution faded and the site’s status as a symbol of national sovereignty has risen, Israeli and regional leaders have warned that the slightest change could ignite the region.

Ben Gvir’s visit could “lead to more tension and violence and an explosive situation,” Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement. He called on the U.S. administration “to assume its responsibilities and force Israel to stop its escalation and storming al-Aqsa Mosque before it is too late.”

His criticisms were echoed by Israel’s neighbors; some of them — including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt — have signed peace treaties or normalization agreements with Israel.

Jordan condemned “in the severest terms the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the violation of its sanctity,” and Egypt’s Foreign Ministry warned of “the negative repercussions of such measures on security and stability in the occupied territories and the region, and on the future of the peace process.”

Saudi Arabia, which Israel has been eager to add to the list of Arab nations with which it has signed agreements, strongly condemned the “provocative practices” and also described it as the “storming” of al-Aqsa Mosque’s courtyard. The Foreign Ministry expressed regret over Israeli activities “that undermine international peace efforts.”

The U.S. Embassy in Israel 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.”

Even Netanyahu has condemned visits to the site as provocative, including in a 2020 speech in which he justified turning down a proposal by Ben Gvir to allow Jewish prayer there in return for his party’s withdrawal from the elections.

“Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, though it sounds like a reasonable thing, I know it would have ignited the Middle East,” he said. “There’s a limit. There are things that I’m not willing to do to win an election.”

But this time around, Netanyahu’s return to power after 18 months on the sidelines was made possible by Ben Gvir and his far-right partners. They have in recent years moved from the political margins into the mainstream, along with a related grass-roots movement of Temple Mount activists.

Their members include many youths living in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank who have defied an edict issued by mainstream Orthodox rabbis prohibiting Jews from ascending the mount for fear of inadvertently walking on the inner sanctuary of the old temple, where only the high priest was allowed to tread.

A decade ago, only a handful of Jews would ascend the Temple Mount and pray surreptitiously into their hands or cellphones. But in recent years, the numbers have grown to the hundreds, sometimes thousands during holiday periods, and at times the visitors pray in open violation of the rules.

Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military, said that with its unprecedented representation in the Israeli government, the right-wing movement appears willing to plunge the region into violence as the price for completing its mission of the “enforcement of the idea that their rights, as Jews, are stronger than any other consideration, including security issues.”

“Extremism brings about confrontations that immediately become violent,” she added. “And all confrontations start at the Temple Mount.”

Hazem Balousha in Ramallah and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.