Jan 3, 2023 - World

Israeli ultranationalist minister visits sensitive Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel's new Minister of National Security and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, greets supporters during a visit to Jerusalem

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvi greets supporters during a visit to Jerusalem on Dec. 30. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Israel's new radical right-wing minister of national security Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Tuesday, drawing international condemnation and raising tensions in the region.

Why it matters: The compound, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, is the most religiously sensitive site in Jerusalem. It is the holiest site for Jews and the third holiest for Muslims.

  • Several rounds of violence between Israelis and Palestinians have erupted over incidents at the compound, which is administered by the Jordanian Islamic Waqf and protected by the Israeli police, per the status quo rules.
  • Last Thursday, Ben-Gvir was sworn in as the minister in charge of the police responsible for security at the holy site.
  • According to the status quo, Jews and Christians can visit the site, but only Muslims can pray. In recent years, the status quo has been challenged by a number of Jews who visited the site and conducted unofficial prayers.

Catch up quick: On Sunday, Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that Ben-Gvir notified the police that he wants to visit the Temple Mount later this week.

  • A day later, Hamas and other Palestinian factions warned that Ben-Gvir’s visit to the holy site would lead to a violent escalation on the ground.
  • Shortly after, Ben-Gvir appeared to walk back his comment, tweeting that he planned to visit the Temple Mount "in the coming weeks."
  • But Ben-Gvir’s aides told reporters his tweet was only a diversion that was meant to avoid organized protests so he could conduct the visit in as calm an environment as possible.
  • On Tuesday at 7am local time, Ben-Gvir entered the Temple Mount through a side entrance. The compound was almost empty when he arrived and he left after about 13 minutes.
  • Late Tuesday, a rocket was launched from Gaza toward Israel. The Israeli military said the launch failed and the rocket landed inside the Gaza Strip.

The big picture: Ben-Gvir, a right-wing extremist who has expressed Jewish supremacist views, has for years advocated to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, stop the activity of the Jordanian Waqf, and even build a synagogue in the compound.

  • For many years, Ben-Gvir was a fringe politician with no influence on the administration of the Temple Mount, but his new post in the Israeli government gives him authority over the police and policies around Jerusalem's holy sites

Behind the scenes: After the reports of his planned visit were published, U.S. officials spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides and raised concerns about the visit, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.

  • On Monday, Netanyahu spoke with Ben-Gvir about his planned visit. The prime minister’s aides told Axios they didn’t ask Ben-Gvir not to visit the Temple Mount, but did ask him to consult security and intelligence services.
  • Ben-Gvir then met with the chief of police and the director of the Shin Bet domestic security agency, who didn’t object to his visit but asked him to conduct it under certain security ground rules and according to the status quo, Shin Bet officials told Axios.

What they're saying: During his short visit to the Temple Mount, Ben-Gvir recorded a video in which he stressed he is not going to cave to Hamas’ threats.

  • Shortly after, the Palestinian presidency and Hamas issued statements condemning the visit and stressing the Israeli government will be responsible for any escalation.
  • Several Arab and Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, also issued condemnations against Ben-Gvir and the Israeli government.

The Jordanian government's statement claimed Ben-Gvir’s visit violated the status quo at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Jordan's Foreign Ministry then summoned the Israeli ambassador in Amman for an urgent meeting.

  • Sources briefed on the meeting said Jordanian officials protested Ben-Gvir’s visit, but the Israeli ambassador claimed several ministers had visited there before and therefore it wasn’t a violation of the status quo.

Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told Axios after Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount that the Biden administration has made it clear to the Israeli government that it opposes any steps that could harm the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem

  • A White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios that the Biden administration expects Netanyahu to follow through on his written commitment to the governing platform, which calls for the preservation of the status quo in the holy places in Jerusalem. "Any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo is unacceptable," the NSC spokesperson said.
  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at Tuesday's daily briefing: “We are deeply concerned by the visit of the Israeli minister at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This visit has the potential of exacerbating tensions and lead to violence."

The other side: A senior official in the Israeli prime minister’s office told reporters that Netanyahu "is committed to strictly preserve the status quo at the Temple Mount and make no changes."

  • The official called claims that Ben-Gvir's visit violated the status quo "baseless."

Go deeper: U.S. Jewish leaders warn Israeli officials over incoming right-wing government

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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