Mondoweiss / January 11, 2023
Itamar Ben-Gvir wants to normalize Jewish worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as a precursor to full Israeli control over the holy site.
Quite a lot of international attention has been given to the visit of Israel’s new Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to the al-Aqsa compound in occupied East Jerusalem, merely five days after he was sworn into government
Even the United Arab Emirates, Israel’s new Arab buddy in the Middle East under the “Abraham Accords,” furiously called for an emergency UNSC meeting.
It is true that Ben-Gvir is a fascist Jewish fundamentalist. His mentor was the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was even banned from running in the Israeli parliament for racism; his longtime hero is the Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 at the Ibrahimi Mosque in al- Khalil (Hebron) in 1994; and his current spiritual leader is rabbi Dov Lior, whom Ben-Gvir repeatedly referred to as “our teacher and rabbi” in his election victory speech, and called him “the greatest of the generation.” Lior has publicly endorsed the notorious 2009 book King’s Torah, which advocates the killing of enemy babies, since there is a chance they may grow up to harm Jews. Ben-Gvir’s followers were repeatedly chanting “death to the Arabs [Palestinians]” in that speech, and he had to pause several times because it was so loud. He could hardly keep himself from smiling.
All of that is true – but Ben-Gvir is not just a Zionist caricature. He is part of a Zionist continuum of colonial confiscation of Palestinian territory, and this is how his visit to al-Aqsa should be viewed.
Altering the status quo
It is important to note that the status quo agreements with the Jordanian Muslim Waqf do not prohibit Jews from visiting the site – they are simply prohibited from praying there. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has been articulating it repeatedly, albeit while employing Jewish biblical terminology: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” This has been the official stated policy since Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967
But this status quo has been challenged in recent years, with an increasing number of visits by fundamentalist Jews who also pray at the site, with the documented protection of the Border Police under the recent “government of change.” The Abraham Accords of 2020 that heralded normalization agreements with Bahrain and the UAE also included a carefully-worded clause that opened the door for that status quo to be altered. Daniel Seidemann explains how the joint statement released ahead of the signing of the Accords — which welcomed “all Muslims” to come pray at al-Aqsa, and for “Jerusalem’s other holy sites” to “remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths” — in fact opened the door for the legitimization of Jewish worship.
Seidemann argues that because “Al-Aqsa Mosque”, as opposed to its wider compound, Al-Haram al-Sharif, was demarcated by the joint statement as the only site where Muslims enjoyed the exclusive right of prayer, then any one of “Jerusalem’s other holy sites,” including the Mosque’s compound, would be “open to prayer by all — including Jews.”
This wording was not an accident. It was a step in the direction of redefining the al-Aqsa compound as a “shared” site. Seidmann points out that this is exactly what happened with Al-Ibrahimi Mosque after Goldstein’s massacre.
In this sense, Goldstein’s crime did not stop at the heinous massacre itself, but also became a catalyst for the colonial confiscation of Palestinian land and sites of worship. It was a double-punishment for Palestinians.
It is therefore hardly farfetched to assume that the al-Aqsa compound might suffer the same fate — where a particularly violent set of events would facilitate further Israeli takeover.
Changes to the status quo by the ‘Government of change’
The recent “government of change” also engaged in this flouting of the status quo. In July 2021, then Prime Minister Naftali Bennet tweeted of Jewish “freedom of worship on the [Temple] Mount,” which caused some furor, and even his Minister of Internal Security, Omer Barlev, called the wording “off”. Bennett’s office ostensibly backpedaled, saying that the Prime Minister really meant freedom of access, rather than worship, but the tweet in Hebrew stands to this day, unchanged, and clearly saying “worship”.
These supposed “glitches,” as with the wording of the joint statement ahead of the mentioned “Abraham Accords,” are not incidental. They are a deliberate wink-wink given to a very specific audience – the Temple Mount Movement, an extremist messianic Jewish movement that seeks to replace the Muslim holy places with a (third) Jewish temple.
The master of the house
According to a coalition agreement between Likud and Jewish Power, the Border Police would be completely severed from the general police authority and command within three months. This entails that it would fall under the direct command of the Minister of National Security — Ben-Gvir himself.
According the agreement, Ben-Gvir “will examine the rules of engagement and make changes to them if necessary.” This could mean further easing the already loose regulations governing the trigger-happy paramilitary Border Police. He will also have the discretion to review legal policies, which is likely to result in even greater immunity for Israeli security personnel, who are already nearly immune from legal repercussions — even when they murder a famous journalist.
The al-Aqsa compound is the most high-profile site of interaction between Palestinians and the Border Police. Ben-Gvir has probably broken no Israeli law in visiting the site (even if, by international law, Israel’s presence and annexation of the place is flagrantly illegal), but his purpose is to assert Jewish presence, to show who is the “master of the house,” as his election slogan has repeatedly promised. The Western Wall is below Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and in symbolic terms, it’s as if the Muslims control the high ground, while the Jews only control the lower ground. Since this is far from being a mere religious matter, intertwined as it is with Zionist colonial designs, it is a matter of perceived power relations for Israelis vis-à-vis Palestinians.
As Hanin Majadli has pointed out, the lack of full Israeli control over Al-Aqsa Mosque compound constitutes a partial victory for Palestinians, one that is “enshrined in law.” This is precisely the sense of defiance that people like Ben-Gvir want to crush. He wants to master the entire house.
Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark