Israel’s Ben-Gvir enters Al-Aqsa: Why was it seen as provocative ?

Israeli police officers escort lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir and a group of Jewish men as they visit the Haram al-Sharif in the Old City of Jerusalem (Mahmoud Illean - AP)

Al-Jazeera  /  January 3, 2023

The far-right Israeli national security minister had been warned by Israel’s former PM that his move would spark violence.

Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem in a move Palestinians called a “deliberate provocation”, ignoring warnings from Israeli politicians that his appearance at the holy site would inflame tensions.

Ben-Gvir said he would not “surrender to the threats of Hamas” after the Palestinian group warned that his entrance to the site on Tuesday would cross a “red line”.

The minister, widely regarded as a provocateur, has previously called for the displacement of Palestinians.

Let’s take a look at why his entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is so controversial:

What is the status of Al-Aqsa ?

  • The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (also known as Al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews) is a wide, walled plaza in the heart of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem. It incorporates the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
  • It is considered holy by both Muslims and Jews and is a Palestinian national symbol.
  • One of the walls of the compound, the Western Wall – also referred to as the Wailing Wall or the Buraq Wall – is a holy site for Jewish prayer. Jews pray undisturbed on the side of the wall that is outside the compound.
  • Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. The occupation is illegal under international law.
  • The compound has been managed continuously by Muslims, under a waqf (religious endowment), for hundreds of years.
  • The Jordanian-funded waqf has continued to administer the site since 1967, while Israel has security control. Under a longstanding agreement, the status quo of the site only permits Muslim prayer, and visits from non-Muslims are only permitted at specific times.

Why is the site so sensitive for Palestinians ?

  • As a site that carries religious and national significance, Palestinians are alert to any attempts to change the status quo of Al-Aqsa.
  • The increased number of ultranationalist Jews entering the compound, and the frequent storming of the site by Israeli security forces, including inside the prayer hall of Al-Aqsa Mosque, has increased Palestinian anger.
  • Confrontations between Israeli security forces and settler groups on one side and Palestinians on the other have occurred numerous times over the past two years, particularly following storming incidents in Al-Aqsa.
  • Palestinians see Al-Aqsa as one of the few national symbols that they retain some element of control over. They are, however, fearful of a slow encroachment by Jewish groups akin to what has happened at Al-Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron/Al-Khalil, where half of the mosque was turned into a synagogue after 1967, which has gradually increased in size.
  • Palestinians are also worried about far-right Israeli movements that seek to demolish the Islamic structures in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and build a Jewish temple in their place.

Do Jews pray at Al-Aqsa ?

  • Traditionally, ultra-Orthodox Jews, including senior religious authorities, have considered it religiously impermissible to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, let alone pray in it. This is because they consider the site too holy for people to step on.
  • Ultranationalist Jews have increasingly attempted to pray in the compound, despite it being forbidden by Israeli authorities.
  • Last May, an Israeli court upheld the ban after it was contested by three Jewish youths who had received a restraining order after praying at the site.
  • However, Israeli security forces have often turned a blind eye to “silent” prayer by Jews being escorted by police at Al-Aqsa.

What does Ben-Gvir want ?

  • Ben-Gvir is part of Israel’s “Religious Zionist” ideological movement, which emerged in an attempt to reconcile religious Jews and Zionism. Many religious Jews were suspicious of Zionism’s secular influences.
  • He is also part of a growing movement in Israel that has challenged the traditional Jewish restrictions on prayer at Al-Aqsa and instead wants to encourage it.
  • As a member of Israel’s far right, Ben-Gvir was seen by many Israeli politicians as too extreme to work with, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to seek allies from the far right, including Ben-Gvir, when many in Israel’s political mainstream opposed him.
  • Ben-Gvir’s position in government, which includes control over the Israeli police, highlights the strength of the “Religious Zionist” movement, which wants to maintain and expand Israeli control over the occupied Palestinian territory.
  • Ben-Gvir has been convicted for racist incitement against Arabs and support for “terrorism”. He has also expressed support for Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli American who killed 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.

What will the Palestinian reaction be ?

  • Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Jazeera that Ben-Gvir’s “storming” of Al-Aqsa was “a continuation of the Zionist occupation’s aggression against our sanctities and its war on their Arab identity”.
  • While general calls for a Palestinian response were made, no group has specifically called for attacks on Israeli targets yet.
  • Analysts believe that Hamas and Fatah are keen to avoid an armed confrontation with Israel, with Netanyahu in a similar position.
  • However, tensions in the occupied West Bank in particular could escalate, amid continued Israeli raids that made 2022 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the territory since 2006, and the growth of new armed Palestinian groups.
  • 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”.

SOURCE: AL-JAZEERA