Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Al-Haram al-Sharif: adding fuel to a smouldering fire

Israeli troops outside Al-Aqsa Mosque in September 2000, following a visit to the site by Ariel Sharon (Awad Awad - AFP)

The Guardian  /  January 4, 2023

Why is visiting the al-Aqsa mosque compound a big deal ?

The compound, known by Jews as the Temple Mount, holds Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine. Two ancient Jewish temples were once situated there. The holiest site in Judaism, and the third holiest in Islam, it has been in Israeli hands since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, but visits to it are subject to a delicately managed set of rules: the site is under Jordanian custodianship, and while Jews and people of any other faith can visit, only Muslims are allowed to pray there. (Jews can pray at the Western Wall below.)

This 2017 piece by Yair Wallach explains some of the site’s fraught history, and summarizes its symbolic significance: “The ongoing Palestinian presence in al-Aqsa Mosque … appears as the last significant obstacle to Israeli domination – the site has huge mobilizing force among ordinary Palestinians.”

For years, the rule that Jewish pilgrims should not pray has been gradually eroded, with Israeli police often turning a blind eye. Rightwing Israeli politicians have long argued that the current arrangement is discriminatory, and Ben-Gvir has visited before – but as the new national security minister, his presence has vastly greater significance.

Yesterday’s visit is the first by a senior cabinet minister for a long time. “A visit by Ariel Sharon [then the leader of Likud in opposition] in 2000 was really a key trigger for the second Palestinian intifada,” Oliver Holmes said. “If an Israeli minister goes there, they know very well that it is a provocation.”

Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir ?

Ben-Gvir is the ultra-nationalist leader of the Jewish Power party, part of the new hard-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud which formed a government last week. He has convictions for incitement to racism and supporting an outlawed ultra-nationalist terrorist organization. “His entire political career has been about provocation,” Oliver said. You can read more about him in this profile by Bethan McKernan from October.

There had been conflicting reports about a visit to the site before it happened, with claims that it had been delayed after Ben-Gvir met with Netanyahu quickly followed by a statement from Netanyahu’s office saying that he had not vetoed the idea because “capitulating in the face of threats would be a reward for terror and legitimize actions against Israel”.

“Ben-Gvir has deliberately done this immediately after entering government because he wants to claim it as Israel’s alone,” Oliver said. Speaking during his visit, Ben-Gvir said: “There won’t be racial discrimination in a government in which I am a member. Jews will ascend to the Temple Mount.” He added that threats of reprisals “must be dealt with with an iron fist”.

What is Ben-Gvir’s relationship with Netanyahu ?

“It’s a tense relationship,” said Oliver. “It’s clear that Netanyahu doesn’t like Ben-Gvir. He doesn’t like anyone not in his party, and not under his control, and he won’t like Ben-Gvir calling the shots on something like this. But he is in a weak political position, because of several corruption cases against him, and he has had to make a deal.”

But there’s a crucial distinction: that antipathy does not appear to be based on any sharp divide in the two men’s ultimate ambitions. “They both want full control over Israel and the Palestinian territories, and certainly Jerusalem. Netanyahu likes to present himself to the public as someone who can guarantee their security, and radical firebrands like Ben-Gvir don’t seem to be along those lines – but on the broad-brush ideological stuff, they are aligned.”

What else can we expect from Ben-Gvir in the months ahead ?

Ben-Gvir had sought the public security ministry from the beginning of negotiations, and eventually secured it with a new title (National Security minister) and a beefed-up mandate with oversight of the police.

That points to another of his key ambitions and another likely source of increased tension: legislation that could grant Israel Defense Forces soldiers and police officers immunity from investigation or trial for alleged crimes committed even outside of their working duties.

He has called for the loosening of rules governing the use of live ammunition by security forces, allowing them to shoot someone who is simply holding a stone or firebomb instead of having to wait until it is thrown. He also said that such measures should be based on whether the threat is rooted in “hatred of Israel or [a desire to] harm the State of Israel or not”, suggesting that Israeli settlers would not be subject to the same provisions as Palestinians.

Former Defence minister Benny Gantz said such proposals suggested that Ben-Gvir and his allies were trying to create “private armies”. And there has been some concern in the Israeli security establishment that removing domestic judicial oversight could lead to soldiers and police officers facing trial at the international criminal court in the Hague.

“There will be elements within the police and army that don’t want this,” Oliver said. “But we should be clear that they have been cracking down hard for a long time. With the status quo, there are already calls for them to be more accountable for their actions.”

What might be the consequences of this visit ?

In this December piece, Bethan McKernan wrote that 2022 was a “quasi-intifada” (or uprising): “the bloodiest year on record in the West Bank and Jerusalem since the end of the second intifada in 2005”, with 150 Palestinians killed and 30 Israelis. Now, “a combination of worsening security and political factors … means a return to full-blown fighting between Israel and the Palestinians is more likely now than it has been in years”.

Any escalation in hostilities in the coming weeks, then, could not be attributed to Ben-Gvir’s stunt alone – but it is fuel to a smouldering fire. “Tensions are already extremely high, and there are many who are worried about what happens next,” Oliver said. “Hamas has described this in specific terms as a red line. But at the same time, Israel’s control of the occupied West Bank is far greater than it was in 2005. That makes it very hard to see something on that scale happening again.”

As for the politics: incendiary though Ben-Gvir’s actions are, they do not undermine the fundamental basis of the new coalition as more ideologically coherent than its recent predecessors, and therefore more likely to be stable. One crucial aspect of that proposition is the Israeli public’s move to the right.

“Over many years, the left has been decimated, and in particular the left that questioned the occupation or the way Palestinians are treated,” Oliver said. “The majority of Israelis certainly believe that Jerusalem fully belongs to them.” However extreme Ben-Gvir might be, “Israel has been on this path for a long time,” Oliver added. “This is the logical endpoint of an evolution that has been going on for years.”