Challenging Netanyahu, Ben Gvir ascends Jerusalem flashpoint site



JERUSALEM — Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, visited an explosive Jerusalem holy site on Tuesday, dismissing 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 exacerbate an already escalating conflict with the Palestinians and embitter relations with the wider Arab world.

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 with security officers.

Then opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site in 2000 with an army of security guards set off the years of fighting of the second intifada and more recently, trips by right wing Israeli lawmakers have sparked confrontations. Palestinians see these moves as part of an effort to extend Israeli control over the site — revered by Muslims, who call it the Noble Sanctuary, and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.

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 Gaza.

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Ben Gvir’s visit comes 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, leading a newly established and expanded position as minister of national security responsible for the police, has long advocated for 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 requires non-Muslim visitors to store religious items, like prayer books, at the entrance.

For decades, as the prospect of a two state solution faded and the site’s status as a symbol for national sovereignty has increased, 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,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority 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,” the statement said.

Jordan condemned “in the severest terms the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the violation of its sanctity.”

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, for its part, 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.”

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 withdrawing 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 movement of Temple Mount activists, which include many youths living in the occupied West Bank.

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

Miri Eisen, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military, said that with their unprecedented representation in the Israeli government, this 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 contributed from Ramallah, Sufian Taha contributed from Jerusalem.

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