Palestinians have decried the visit of Israeli Minister of National Security to a holy site in Jerusalem, calling it an “unprecedented provocation.”
Furthermore, minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s approach to security issues is unpopular with some Palestinians. His visit to the holy site was the first public event since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new government were sworn in last week.
The holy site, as with much of the region, is a contested space between Israelis and Palestinians. The Jews refer to the site as the Temple Mount, which was the site of two temples in the Torah. To Muslims, it is known as Haram al-Sharif and is believed to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Palestinian and Israeli tensions
The holy site has become one of many sources of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Currently, the rules allow both Jews and Muslims to visit the holy site but not to pray. However, the Palestinian community perceives visitations by Jews as attempts to upset the delicate balance of power between the two communities.
Ben-Gvir, who is also the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party, has made it clear that he advocates for plans to legalize Jewish worship at the holy site in Jerusalem.
ממשלת ישראל שאני חבר בה לא תיכנע לארגון מרצחים שפל. הר הבית פתוח לכולם ואם החמאס חושב שאם הוא יאיים עליי זה ירתיע אותי, שיבינו שהשתנו הזמנים. יש ממשלה בירושלים! pic.twitter.com/vgDYBYacJG
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) January 3, 2023
The Israeli minister’s visit to the holy site, which lasted just fifteen minutes, drew criticism from some Palestinian officials and community leaders.
The Palestinian foreign ministry denounced the fifteen-minute walkaround as “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.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh called Ben-Gvir’s visit “a violation of all norms, values, international agreements and laws, and Israel’s pledges to the American president.”
He called for “thwarting the raids that aimed at turning the al-Aqsa Mosque into a Jewish temple.”
Turkey also condemned the visit. The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement saying, “We are concerned by the provocative act of Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir towards Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of Israeli police and we condemn it.”
Religious significance to Israelis and Palestinians
The holy site, situated on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem is of tremendous religious significance to both the Israeli and Palestinian communities. It is also an important site for Christians.
For Jewish Israelis, the space is important as the location of the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BC. According to religious texts, the Second Temple was built in 516 BC after the first was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This building was also destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
For Palestinians, who mostly follow the Islamic faith, the site is venerated as “the Noble Sanctuary.” It is the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the second oldest mosque in Islam and the third holiest site in Islam.
Israel’s new government
Ben-Gvir, who has himself been described by critics as a hardliner and far-right figure, is the National Security Minister for Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government.
Netanyahu’s government, which is merely five days old, has been criticized for a set of policy proposals and intended measures that detractors have claimed could inflame tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu has dismissed the criticism. He also tried to reassure allies and regional figures that the Israeli government will not pass any laws that alter the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians. A clause in Netanyahu’s coalition deal stipulates that the status quo will remain intact “with regard to the holy places.”