Lawmakers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and a minister from the far-right Otzma Yehudit were among hundreds of Jewish visitors to the flashpoint Temple Mount on Thursday.
The visits came as security forces geared up for a potential renewal of violence, ahead of a controversial march through Jerusalem, including the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, slated to go ahead despite recent tensions.
Hundreds of Jewish visitors entered the holy site, including Negev and Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf and MK Yitzhak Kroizer — both from the Otzma Yehudit party led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — as well as Likud MKs Dan Illouz, Amit Halevi and Ariel Kallner.
In addition, Ayala Ben Gvir — Itamar Ben Gvir’s wife — and former MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli also visited the compound.
The visits by the minister and lawmakers were quickly condemned by Jordan’s Foreign Ministry as “provocative and unacceptable.” Under their 1994 peace treaty, Israel recognizes Amman’s “special role” at the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.
The Hashemite Kingdom additionally warned against the “provocative and escalatory” Flag March.
Earlier Thursday, senior Likud lawmaker David Bitan said it would be inappropriate for lawmakers from his party to visit the flashpoint site to mark Jerusalem Day.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu could have called them and told them not to go,” Bitan told the Ynet news site.
“It is not proper for Likud MKs to visit the Temple Mount. This is not what should be done. People have become extremists,” he told Army Radio, adding that he saw no issue with lawmakers joining the Flag March.
Former MK Sami Abou Shahadeh, leader of the Palestinian nationalist Balad party that failed to enter the Knesset in the 2022 election, condemned the “violent and provocative storming of the Al Aqsa Mosque by extremist Jews,” saying it was “a crime with government support and police protection and help.”
“Racism, extremism and stupidity are leading to dangerous and dark places. This is the policy of Israel’s government — power, terror and violence,” he claimed.
The Temple Mount site is the holiest for Jews, as the location of two biblical temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam, turning the area into a major source of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Muslims deny any Jewish connection to the site and view all Israeli presence there as provocative.
Video posted online by an activist on Thursday morning showed a Jewish group openly praying on the Temple Mount, contravening informal understandings according to which Jews are allowed to visit the site — at certain hours, under strict restrictions and through a predetermined route — but not to pray there.
The longstanding arrangement has frayed in recent years as Muslims designate new areas of the Mount as mosques, and as groups of Jews, including hardline religious nationalists, have regularly prayed at the site. The Israeli government, nonetheless, says it is committed to maintaining the status quo.
הר הבית בידינו pic.twitter.com/5yQiSRY1Vh
— ארנון סגל (@arnonsegal1) May 18, 2023
Meanwhile, an East Jerusalem resident who was live on air with the Ynet news site while visiting the Temple Mount, was detained after a police officer apparently knocked his phone out of his hand and demanded to know what he was doing.
Researcher Fakhri Abu Diab was being interviewed when he was approached by the officers.
One police officer can be heard in the footage saying “don’t film me,” despite the fact that his face was not seen until he interrupted the interview.
Police later denied that Abu Diab was detained, and claimed he “spoke loudly and uttered inflammatory words while standing along the route where Jews walked through the Temple Mount.” Abu Diab said that his phone was broken when it hit the ground, and said that he had not been spoken to by any police officers until they confronted him during the interview.
— nir (shoko) cohen (@shoko21211) May 18, 2023
The visits came as tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis were expected later Thursday to march throughout the capital waving Israeli flags, including through the Muslim Quarter, despite threats from Palestinian terror groups and pressure from foreign allies to reroute the march.
Security officials have been working to convey that the flashpoint site was having a normal day despite the lawmakers’ visits, and was not affected by the special preparations being taken to secure the Flag March later in the day, Hebrew-language media reported.
The Temple Mount was having a day “like yesterday, like the day before that, like last year and two years ago — no changes to the procedures and the visits,” Brig. Gen. Sami Marciano, the Israel Police’s top commander in East Jerusalem, told 103FM radio. “The Flag March doesn’t go to the Temple Mount, only through the Old City alleyways.”
According to reports, Ben Gvir has been excluded from many of the high-level security discussions ahead of the Flag March, despite holding the portfolio in charge of policing.
Over 3,000 police officers are expected to be deployed across the city for the rally, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of largely Orthodox Jewish nationalists.
The annual parade to the Western Wall marks Israel’s reunification of East and West Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War but has gained notoriety in recent years, as it is often marred by hate speech and violence by Jewish participants toward Palestinians.
Several members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, including Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Wasserlauf and ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem Minister Meir Porush were slated to take part in the march.
Adding to the fraught atmosphere, this year’s parade comes on the heels of last week’s protracted fight between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza, which saw nearly 1,500 rockets shot into Israel and hundreds of airstrikes on targets in the Strip.
On Wednesday, a senior official with the Hamas terror group ruling the Strip threatened an unspecified response should the march go ahead.
“The Zionist Flag March will not pass, and the response will inevitably come,” said senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil in a statement.
In 2021, Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem just as the march was beginning, sparking over a week of intense fighting between Israel and Gazan terror groups.
Officials believe the chances of rocket fire this time around to be slim, Channel 13 news reported, but Iron Dome anti-missile batteries will be at the ready.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, Israel has warned Hamas that it will respond to any rocket fire.
The report said that while security officials believe the march itself will not lead to rockets, video documentation of violence against Palestinians or other provocations could.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s so-called balloon unit — responsible for launching balloons ferrying incendiary and explosive devices into Israel in the past, and thought to be tied to Hamas — has said it would resume activities Thursday.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has urged Israel to change the route of the march to go through the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, instead of Damascus Gate, thereby avoiding the Muslim Quarter, which is largely populated by Palestinians.
However, Netanyahu has vowed that the procession will not change its traditional route.
The annual Flag March has long become associated with religious Zionism, a movement that sees it as a religious imperative to hold the land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty. The march is leveraged by some extremist nationalists to antagonize Arab residents, and Arab East Jerusalemites view the parade as a provocation.