Israel far-right minister enters Al-Aqsa in ‘provocation’

Al-Jazeera  /  January 3, 2023

Israeli far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir says he will not surrender to ‘threats’ as Palestinians fear for the status quo of the holy site.

Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has entered the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem, in a move that threatens a backlash from Palestinians who have labelled the act an “unprecedented provocation”.

Ben-Gvir was seen at the site on Tuesday under heavy security.

 “Our government will not surrender to the threats of Hamas,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement published by his spokesman, after the Palestinian group that governs the besieged Gaza Strip warned that such a move would cross a “red line”.

Ben-Gvir has long called for greater Jewish access to the holy site, which is viewed by Palestinians as provocative and as a potential precursor to Israel taking complete control over the compound. Leading rabbis forbid Jews from praying on the site.

Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter after his visit that the site “is open to all and if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me it will deter me, they should understand that times have changed”.

Ofir Gendelman, who has long served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic-language spokesman, released a video saying that the “situation is completely calm” at the holy site following Ben-Gvir’s departure.

The visit appears to have been calculated to avoid a direct confrontation with Palestinians, having come early in the morning, and a day after Ben-Gvir had appeared to backtrack from his plans, thereby avoiding a gathering of Palestinians at the site.

However, the Palestinian foreign ministry said it “strongly condemns the storming of Al-Aqsa mosque by the extremist minister Ben-Gvir and views it as unprecedented provocation and a dangerous escalation of the conflict”.

Israel’s opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid had warned on Monday that Ben-Gvir’s planned entrance to the compound would lead to violence, and called it a “deliberate provocation that will put lives in danger”.

Ben-Gvir was sworn in last week as part of a new far-right government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the compound, Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, only Muslim worship is allowed under the status quo. The Israeli far right has been attempting to change this and allow Jewish prayer at the site, despite opposition from many ultra-Orthodox Jews and prohibition from leading rabbis.

Palestinians fear that this may lead to a change to the status quo of the site, as far-right Israelis have been calling for a Jewish temple to be built there in place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israeli media had reported that Netanyahu had been negotiating with Ben-Gvir after it emerged that he was planning to enter the site, in an effort to get him to call off his plans.

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s entrance to the site in 2000 sparked the second Palestinian Intifada or uprising.

Al-Jazeera’s Sara Khairat, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said Ben-Gvir spent a short amount of time in the compound “in the early hours of this morning”.

“That’s no surprise because of the provocation that it would cause especially amongst the Palestinians and the Muslim world,” Khairat said.

“[Ben-Gvir] also has sweeping powers over the police, [so it] came as no surprise that this decision [to enter the Al Aqsa compound] would happen very quickly.

“We’re going to expect a lot of tension from the Palestinians. Already, security has been stepped up amongst the Israelis.”

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that Ben-Gvir entering the site on Tuesday was “a continuation of the Zionist occupation’s aggression on our sacred places and war on our Arab identity”.

“Our Palestinian people will continue defending their holy places and Al-Aqsa Mosque,” he said.

Ben-Gvir’s stated intention of entering the site earlier this week drew threats from Hamas.

“Any escalation in Al-Aqsa Mosque will explode the situation and the occupation government will be responsible for this,” Hamas spokesman Abdel-Latif al-Qanoua said in a statement published on Monday.

Analyst Nasser al-Hidmi, told Al-Jazeera from Jerusalem that he believes “this raid was a publicity stunt” to demonstrate “the occupation’s sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and that the new government does not bend to threats by the Palestinian armed resistance movements.

“There was an agreement between [Ben-Gvir] and Netanyahu – a discussion – that the raid would take place in this manner in order to both demonstrate sovereignty while also avoiding provoking the Palestinian people in Jerusalem,” Al-Hidmi said.

“[The raid] happened at a time when there were few Palestinians inside Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the visit lasted 13 minutes. All of this is an expression of Ben-Gvir’s fears.”

Ben-Gvir holds far-right views towards the Palestinians and has called for their displacement. He has repeatedly joined Israeli settlers in entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which has led to confrontations with Palestinians in the past.

Israeli forces stormed the compound in May 2021, leading to conflict with Palestinians which led to Israel attacking Gaza later the same month.

Ben-Gvir also caused a wave of escalation in occupied East Jerusalem after setting up an office in February in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, where Palestinians face mass expulsion.

A settler in Kiryat Araba, one of the most right-wing settlements in the illegally occupied West Bank, which is not recognized under international law, Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism, destroying property, possessing a “terror” organization’s propaganda material and supporting a “terror” organization – Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach group, which he joined when he was 16.

Ben-Gvir was also notorious for displaying on his wall a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron/Al-Khalil in 1994.

Last November, Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned in a leaked audio that “the whole world is worried” about Ben-Gvir’s views.

Al-Hidmi said that in the coming year, “more extremism and more violations against the Palestinian people and their holy sites” can be expected.

“Hamas and the armed groups in Gaza are not interested in going into another confrontation with the occupation, but they are interested in mobilizing the West Bank. It is clear that the West Bank is responsive to this direction, which is worrying the occupation.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian teenager in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian health officials and witnesses said. There was no immediate comment on the incident from the Israeli army.

“Israeli forces turned up in Bethlehem to make an arrest at a refugee camp. In the process, there were a lot of confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis and as a result, a teenager was shot in the chest and killed,” Khairat said.