Israel’s security minister’s ‘provocative’ visit to Al-Aqsa mosque

Ultra-nationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir’s surprise, early-morning visit to the holy site has received widespread condemnation

Itamar Ben-Gvir
Itamar Ben-Gvir took up his first ministerial post in the new coalition government
(Image credit: Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Israel’s new national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir made a surprise visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Tuesday, prompting fierce condemnation by the Palestinian Authority, who called it “an unprecedented provocation” that could escalate tensions in the region.

The Al-Aqsa compound is a sacred site for both Muslims and Jews, although only Muslims are allowed to pray there. While Jews are permitted to visit the site at specific times, Ben-Gvir’s visit is seen as particularly provocative coming just days after taking office in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing government.

Ben-Gvir’s trip to the compound took place in the early morning, in secret, and with tight security controls: “an indication of the controversy surrounding it”, said Sky News.

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The minister said his visit was to show Israel would “not surrender to the threats of Hamas” after the Palestinian militant group warned against it. However, former Israeli prime minister and now opposition leader, Yair Lapid said the actions would “cost lives”.

The UAE and China have requested a UN Security Council meeting because of the visit, while Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have publicly condemned the action. In the US, The White House said that anything “that jeopardises the status quo” of holy sites in Jerusalem was “unacceptable”.

Why is the Al-Aqsa mosque so important?

The Al-Aqsa mosque, known as Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, is Islam’s third most important site after Mecca and Medina. The walled plaza and its mosque lie in the heart of the Old City of East Jerusalem, which has been formally annexed by Israel since 1980, but occupied since the Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

The site is also holy in Judaism, known as the Temple Mount, where biblical temples once stood. “Jews have traditionally believed that the site is too holy to be stepped on”, said Al-Jazeera. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound at certain times, but not to pray.

Israeli authorities control security and entry to the compound, but the Jordanian-funded Waqf Islamic affairs council maintains administration of the site.

Why was Ben-Gvir’s visit so controversial?

Ben-Gvir has visited the Al-Aqsa compound “numerous times since entering parliament in April 2021”, said The Guardian, however his visit as a senior government minister “carries far greater weight”.

The paper described him as an “extreme-right Israeli firebrand” who has, until recently, been seen “as a fringe figure”. Leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, he helped Netanyahu form his new coalition government and has previously called for the “mass expulsion of Palestinians” from Israel.

For Palestinians and other Muslims, the visit is seen as “part of an effort to alter the status of the site and give Jewish worshippers more rights there”, said The New York Times (NYT). A spokesperson for Hamas said it was “a continuation of the Israeli occupation’s aggression against the holy sites and its war on its Arab identity”.

Al-Aqsa has been “historically a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian tensions”, said the Financial Times, and numerous states, including the US, have warned against altering the longstanding status quo of the compound and other holy sites in the city. Jordan, which remains the custodian of holy sites in East Jerusalem, said it was “quite prepared” for conflict with Israel if the status of the sites changed. Jordan’s King Abdullah told CNN those were its “red lines”.

What was the point of the visit?

Ben-Gvir’s trip to Al-Aqsa “highlighted the uncompromising approach to the Palestinians that has been promised by the new government”, said the NYT. The minister posted a photo of his visit on Twitter, saying that he would “not surrender to a vile murdering organisation”, and adding “if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me it will deter me, let them understand that times have changed”.

Ben-Gvir has “repeatedly claimed it is an act of racism to prevent Jews from praying on Temple Mount”, said Sky News, and last Sunday, when he took office, he said he intended to “ascend the mount”. He has a “history of provocative actions”, said the NYT, but his visit on Tuesday was “intentionally obscured” to avoid conflict with Palestinian protesters.

The prime minister’s office in response said it remained “committed to the strict preservation, with no change, of the status quo on Temple Mount,” though added a caveat that it would “not capitulate to the dictates of Hamas”.

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Richard Windsor is a freelance writer for The Week Digital. He began his journalism career writing about politics and sport while studying at the University of Southampton. He then worked across various football publications before specialising in cycling for almost nine years, covering major races including the Tour de France and interviewing some of the sport’s top riders. He led Cycling Weekly’s digital platforms as editor for seven of those years, helping to transform the publication into the UK’s largest cycling website. He now works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant.