First cabinet member enters Temple Mount after 3 years as PM lifts ban

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel the first to make use of new decision letting MKs visit flashpoint Jerusalem holy site once every 3 months; calls for completely free access

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on July 8, 2018. (Courtesy)
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on July 8, 2018. (Courtesy)

An Israeli minister on Sunday entered the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the first such visit since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lifted a three-year ban on lawmakers entering the flashpoint holy site.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the religious right-wing Jewish Home party became the first lawmaker to make use of the permit and entered the compound, the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, at the beginning of non-Muslim visitation hours shortly after 7 a.m.

Ariel last week welcomed the prime minister’s decision, but said that it did not go far enough.

“The Temple Mount must be open for Jewish prayer throughout the year, including to public figures,” he said. “The Muslims are not in charge of the Mount and they can’t make use of threats and violence that place limits on [Jewish] entry to the Temple Mount. I call on the prime minister to open the Temple Mount to Jewish prayer without limitations for anyone who wants.”

The visit came in the middle of an annual three-week period in which Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which stood at the site millennia ago. The mourning period began on July 1 when the Seventeenth of Tammuz fast day was marked, and will end on July 22 when Jews hold another fast day on Tisha B’av — the date the Temples were destroyed according to tradition.

Quoting the biblical prophet Zecharia, Ariel told a group of Jews who visited the Temple Mount with him that “we hope and pray for Tisha B’av to be a day of happiness and for the Temple to be rebuilt, so that there will be no more fasts and we will be able to bring all the sacrifices that we read about in this week’s Torah reading — we should be able to carry them out and not just to learn about them.”

Later in the morning, MK Sharren Haskel of the ruling Likud party also entered the site with a different Jewish group.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would lift the ban on parliamentarians visiting the Temple Mount, three years after the government forbade them from entering the site due to security concerns.

In a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the premier said that Knesset members could visit the Temple Mount once every three months, and this time, as opposed to a pilot held a year ago, ministers could also go to the site.

In October 2015, the government barred MKs from going to site as part of an attempt to reduce tensions amid a wave of terror attacks against Israelis that was linked to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, which contains the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

After the threats and violence on the site calmed down, Jerusalem police commander Yehoram Halevy recommended to Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich that MKs should be once again permitted to visit the Temple Mount.

MK Shuli Mualem seen at the Western Wall plaza after visiting the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, August 29, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Under a decades-old arrangement enforced by Israel, only Muslims are allowed to pray inside the compound, and Jews and tourists are only permitted to ascend at certain times, with religious group escorted and closely monitored by security forces.

Likud’s Yehudah Glick, who, along with Shuli Moalem-Refaeli of the Jewish Home party, visited the compound during the pilot a year ago, last week congratulated Netanyahu for removing the ban.

“I congratulate the prime minister for ending the illegal and unreasonable ban on MKs visiting the Temple Mount, and I call on him to make a real change and allow MKs to go to the Temple Mount whenever they want, as is the right of every citizen or tourist.”

Arab MK Ahmad Tibi is seen atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on February 25, 2014. (Sliman Khader/Flash 90)

Glick stressed that “the Temple Mount is the place for everyone who wants to get close to the Master of the Universe and is not the place of those who incite or use violence or terrorists.”

The MK has long been an advocate of Jews visiting the Temple Mount. In 2014, a Palestinian terrorist attempted to assassinate Glick because of his Temple Mount activism. The shooter told Glick, right before pulling the trigger, that he was “an enemy of Al-Aqsa.”

Lawmakers from the Joint (Arab) List panned the prime minister’s decision.

“Lawmakers from the Joint List will not come today to the Al-Aqsa Mosque within the framework of the provocation and conditions of Netanyahu and Israeli police,” said MK Ahmad Tibi. “The Arab MKs will go whenever they want and not when Netanyahu wants. That’s how it was in the past and that’s how it will be in the future.”

“Netanyahu will not tell Muslims, MKs, or others, when to go or when to pray,” said MK Hanin Zoabi. “Someone who is not a Muslim has no need to be in that place. Netanyahu wants to create argument to evade the criminal investigations and the threats of breaking up his coalition.”

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