New National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Thursday that he plans to continue visiting the flashpoint Temple Mount as he often did before becoming a senior cabinet member.
He told the Kan public broadcaster after the 37th government’s swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset that he would “obviously” continue such visits. The far-right lawmaker added that he is “against racism at the Temple Mount,” referencing the long-maintained status quo at the holy site under which Muslims may pray, while Jews can only visit during limited time slots.
Ben Gvir has long been an advocate of altering the Temple Mount status quo, something the Palestinians and most of the international community vehemently reject. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to assure Israeli allies that he will not allow such a change, and he had a clause included in all of his coalition deals stipulating that the status quo “with regard to the holy places” will be preserved.
However, critics point to what they say has been the gradual erosion of the policy, with Orthodox Jewish pilgrims often seen praying quietly at the site in recent years as Israeli police look on.
In a Wednesday interview, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned the new Israeli government not to cross Jordan’s “red lines” with regard to Jerusalem’s holy sites.
“You always have those people that will try and push that and that is a concern,” Abdullah said without mentioning names.
“If people want to get into a conflict with us, we are quite prepared. I always like to believe that ‘Let’s look at the glass half full,’ but we have set red lines and if people want to push those red lines then we will deal with that,” the king added.
The Temple Mount is believed by Jews to be the historic location of the two Jewish temples, making it Judaism’s holiest place. It houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.
Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. However, it allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount. Under their 1994 peace treaty, Israel recognized Amman’s “special role… in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.”
Also during the Kan interview, Ben Gvir was asked to respond to allegations that he seeks to discriminate against Arabs and LGBTQ individuals.
“I am against chanting ‘may your village burn’ and against harming Arabs because they are Arab,” he said. “My agenda states that we [Jews] are the owners of the country, but I do not generalize [against] all Arabs. I want [things in this country] to be good for everyone.”
Asked about plans for legislation, as set out in his party’s and the Religious Zionism party’s coalition agreements with Netanyahu’s Likud, allowing service providers to reject customers on religious grounds, Ben Gvir defended the bill.
While the Otzma Yehudit chairman said he is against discriminating against LGBTQ people, the bill is justified, in part, because of cases such as “an ultra-Orthodox person being forced to print ads in support of a pride parade,” he claimed.
The story of the Beersheba publisher who was allegedly fined for refusing to print posters for a local pride parade has been cited repeatedly by Ben Gvir and several other coalition lawmakers to justify the planned legislation, which critics say will legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people, women and Arabs. However, many details of the story have been retold inaccurately.
In 2020, a young volunteer for the Aguda Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel reached out to several printing houses to request a quote on fliers for a meeting of Ben Gurion University’s LGBTQ club. One of the printing press owners, an Orthodox man, responded that his company would not agree to print such “abomination material because we are Jews.”
The young volunteer posted the response on social media, and the printing press owner threatened to sue her for libel. A court case eventually unfolded and the judge ruled that the publisher chose to refuse service to the LGBTQ group volunteer because of her sexual identity and not because of the content of the fliers. As a result, the publisher was fined NIS 50,000 ($14,200).
Separately on Thursday, a confidant of Ben Gvir reportedly told Channel 12 that the Otzma Yehudit chairman has no intention to secure full control over the Border Police, despite a clause in his party’s coalition agreement with Likud that specifies otherwise.
The deal released on Wednesday states that the Border Police will be sliced away from the Israel Police and placed under the direct control of Ben Gvir. The agreement states that the move will be made within 90 days of the government’s formation, “turning [the Border Police] into an independent service in similar status to the Israel Prison Service and subjecting it to the authority of the minister.”
The gendarmerie force will subsequently answer to the national security minister directly, giving Ben Gvir control over a force that carries out sensitive operations in the West Bank, is in charge of quelling Palestinian riots and protests, and responsible for policing demonstrations within Israel as well.
Previously, it was thought that Ben Gvir would be given greater jurisdiction over Border Police in the West Bank, usually under the purview of the defense minister. The broader clause removing the entire force from under the police chief and offering the minister direct control was only revealed Wednesday upon publication of the full agreement between Otzma Yehudit and Likud. Coalition agreements are not legally binding and are not always implemented.
In an apparent attempt at damage control, a source close to Ben Gvir told Channel 12 that the national security minister does not actually intend to seek full control over the Border Police at this stage and that the clause in the signed coalition deal had been incorrectly phrased.
“This is not a decision that there is an intention to realize, but rather an option for the future,” the source told the network.
“The phrasing of this clause was incorrect, and the intention was [to relate to] the transfer of the National Guard and not the Border Police,” the source added referring, to a yet-to-be-established civilian force that was announced by the previous government. It remains unclear how the National Guard will look or operate.
The attempt to assuage concern over an apparently massive overhaul to law enforcement command did not seem to suffice though. Channel 12 quoted an unnamed police source who said his colleagues were unimpressed by the anonymous words of reassurance by Ben Gvir’s confidant.
“This [clause specifying Ben Gvir to gain direct control over the entire Border Police] is another threat hanging above the head if the police commissioner: If he doesn’t do what Ben Gvir tells him to do, one of the leading operational units of the police will be removed from his control,” the police official said.