An Arab-Israeli lawmaker visited the Temple Mount on Saturday, defying a ban on Knesset members going onto the holy site, before being escorted away by Israeli police.
MK Masud Ghnaim of the Joint List’s Islamic Movement Faction said he went up to the Temple Mount as part of an annual event preparing the site for the Muslim holy moth of Ramadan which starts Friday.
Knesset lawmakers have been banned from visiting the Temple Mount since November 2015 as part of an attempt to reduce tensions amid an uptick in terror attacks against Israelis that included car-ramming and stabbing attacks.
Ghnaim said he went up to “bless the dozens of Arab volunteers who came to Al-Aqsa to renovate and clean ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, an even that has been held every year for a long time and to fulfill my right to pray in the mosque.”
Ghnaim said he objects to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ban on lawmakers going up because “the Al Aqsa compound is occupied territory and a holy site to Muslims and this decision infringes on out freedom of religion and worship in a site that is holy to us.”
In September 2015, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalated into near-daily attacks amid false speculation that Israel sought to change the status quo at the Temple Mount, which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque, under which Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray, at the site. Israel has repeatedly denied seeking any change to these long-standing understandings which have been in place since 1967. The site is managed by an Islamic foundation under the auspices of Jordan — the Waqf — but Israel controls access.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest site in Islam. High-profile visits by Israeli officials and rumors of changes to the status quo have preceded outbursts of violence.
On Saturday, Ghnaim was spotted by Israeli police who escorted him off the site. Israeli officials believe he was trying to stir up tensions ahead of the visit of US President Donald Trump, who arrives in Israel on Monday.
Trump is set to visit the Western Wall in a private visit the following day.
Ghnaim denied he was stirring up trouble.
“I don’t see any provocation in Arab lawmakers wanting to go into a mosque and pray there,” he said, adding that “there is no connection between my visit and the planned visit of President Trump.”
In late March, Netanyahu indicated he would consider lifting the ban on lawmakers entering after three months — a period that would avoid a series of sensitive dates including the Trump visit, Ramadan and Israel’s celebrations of capturing Judaism’s holiest site in the 1967 Six Day War.
Netanyahu’s statement came after a Jewish lawmaker from his party, Yehudah Glick, appealed to the Supreme Court over the ban.