Israel’s ultra-nationalist minister visits Jerusalem holy site

JERUSALEM — An ultra-nationalist Israeli Cabinet minister on Tuesday visited the holy city of Jerusalem, the flashpoint for the first time since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government took office last week. The visit was met with fierce condemnation from across the Muslim world and strong rebuke from the United States.

Mr. Netanyahu tried to downplay the incident, saying it was in line with longstanding understandings in the disputed holy land. But the visit by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has alarmed both enemies and allies, who have expressed strong doubts about the new government’s far-right structure.

Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settlement leader who was inspired by a racist rabbi, entered the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Holy Land. guarded by a large police squad. His plan to visit, announced earlier this week, has been met with threats from the militant group Hamas in Gaza.

“The Israeli government will not surrender to a murderous organization, a vile terrorist organization,” Ben-Gvir, known for his anti-Arab rhetoric and provocative stunts, said in a video clip. Filmed during the visit.

Describing the Temple Mount as “the most important place for the Jews”, he criticized what he called “racism” against Jews visiting the site. in the background and waving at the camera, he said the visits would continue.

This site is the holiest site in Judaism, home to the Old Biblical Temples. Today, it houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Since Israel captured the site in 1967, Jews have been allowed to visit but not pray there.

Ben-Gvir has long called for more Jewish access to the holy place. Palestinians see the mosque as a national symbol and see such visits as provocative and a potential foreshadowing of Israel taking control of the complex. Most rabbis forbid Jews from praying at the site, but there has been a growing movement in recent years of Jews in favor of worshiping there.

The site has been the site of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, most recently in April last year.

Although Tuesday’s visit passed without incident, US Ambassador Tom Nides said he “has been very clear in his conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of maintaining the status quo. in Jerusalem’s holy sites. Actions to prevent that are unacceptable.”

The United Arab Emirates, which established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, “strongly condemns the storming of the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by an Israeli minister under guard by an Israeli minister in the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. of Israeli forces.” It called on Israel to “put an end to the egregious and provocative violations taking place there.”

Bahrain, which also recognizes Israel, did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Saudi Arabia, a powerful Arab country with which Mr. Netanyahu hopes to establish similar relationships, condemned the Israeli minister’s actions, as well as statements from Kuwait and Qatar. None of the three countries has official diplomatic relations with Israel.

Turkey, which has just re-established full diplomatic relations with Israel, condemned what it called a “provocative act” by Ben-Gvir. It called on Israel to “act responsibly,” saying such visits could “cause escalation in the region.”

Israel’s neighbour, Jordan, which acts as custodian of the disputed temple, condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit “in the strongest of terms” and summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest.

Egypt, another important Arab ally of Israel, warned against “the negative consequences of such measures for security and stability in the occupied territories and areas, as well as for the future of the peace process”.

Tensions in the disputed area have fueled past episodes of violence. The visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in September 2000 sparked clashes that became the second Palestinian uprising. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters in and around the site sparked an 11-day war with Hamas in 2021.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said Ben-Gvir’s visit was “a continuation of the Zionist occupation of our holy places and war on identity.” Our Arabia.”

“Our Palestinian people will continue to defend their holy sites and the Al Aqsa Mosque,” he said.

The Lebanese group Hezbollah, which fought Israel in a month-long war in 2006, said the visit risked “exploding the region”.

Responding to the outcry, Netanyahu late Tuesday said Israel remained committed to “strictly maintaining the status quo” at the site. “The claim that a change has been made in the status quo is unfounded.”

Netanyahu returned to office last week for a sixth term as prime minister, leading the most religious right-wing government in the country’s history. Its goals included expanding settlements in the West Bank and annexing occupied territory.

Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, home to holy sites of the three monotheistic faiths, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Middle East war. that territory for a future independent nation, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized by most of the international community and regards the city as its eternal, indivisible capital.

Competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ben-Gvir is the head of the ultra-nationalist religious Jewish Power faction and has a history of inciting remarks and actions against Palestinians. He was once convicted of inciting and supporting a Jewish terrorist group, but in his new job he now commands the Israeli police force.

Earlier in the day, opposition leader Yair Lapid, who until last week was Israel’s prime minister, warned that Ben-Gvir’s intended visit would “lead to violence that endangers human lives. and cost people dearly.”

His visit comes after months of heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

Early Tuesday morning, Palestinian officials said a 15-year-old boy was killed by Israeli army fire near the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. The Israeli military said its forces fired on firebombers towards the army.

On Monday, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2004, a period of intense violence during the Palestinian uprising. It said nearly 150 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Israeli military has carried out near-daily attacks on Palestinian cities and towns since a series of Palestinian attacks on Israelis left 19 people dead last spring. A new wave of attacks killed at least nine other Israelis in the fall.

The Israeli military said most of the Palestinians killed were militants. But young men who threw stones against the intrusions and others who did not participate in the confrontations were also killed.


Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Rome, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.


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