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Gantz pans Lapid’s ‘provocative’ Damascus Gate tour, in fresh coalition tiff

In latest spar with government partners, defense minister calls FM’s desire to strengthen troops during tense days ‘legitimate’ but says avoiding destabilizing steps is critical

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center), Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, April 3, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center), Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, April 3, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz took a swipe at Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Monday, appearing to call his tour with police chiefs at the flashpoint Damascus Gate a “provocation,” in the latest incident of government infighting.

During an interview with 103FM Radio, Gantz was asked about Lapid’s visit to one of the main Palestinian gathering points in Jerusalem where clashes with police ensued on both of the first two nights of the holy month of Ramadan.

Lapid toured the Damascus Gate area with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and several other members of his Yesh Atid party on Sunday afternoon.

Gantz said he understood the desire of ministers to show backing for Israeli security forces, adding that it is “legitimate” for Lapid to tour the area.

“Without getting into this specific tour, I say that we should not do things that are provocative, let’s not do things that undermine stability, which is critical during this period,” the defense minister said.

Gantz, a former army chief and relative newcomer to politics, has regularly found himself sparring with Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Lapid was his No. 2 in the Blue and White party, but the two split when Gantz decided to join the previous government led by Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu. The Blue and White chairman was supposed to become prime minister in a rotational deal with Netanyahu, but the latter never held to his side of the deal, and the government collapsed before Gantz could take over.

Defense Benny Gantz, left, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attend a plenary session at the assembly of the Knesset, June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz hobbled into the next election with far less support than he once had, due to his decision to briefly team up with Netanyahu as his defense minister, albeit far more than he had been predicted to garner.

While remaining as defense minister in the current coalition, Gantz has made clear that he has higher ambitions and analysts describe a degree of bitterness over seeing his former deputy on the verge of becoming premier in a government where he is a more junior partner.

Last week, Channel 12 reported that Bennett and Lapid worked together to thwart a visit Gantz had hoped to make to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

The Monday comments seemed to place Gantz closer in opinion to Palestinian factions who lambasted Lapid’s visit to the East Jerusalem flashpoint, similarly calling it a provocation.

“The continuing actions of the occupation army, its police provocations, and the incursions of settlers [in the Temple Mount holy site] will lead the situation to explode,” Abbas’s spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeinah said, calling Lapid’s visit “irresponsible.”

Hamas called the tour a “dangerous escalation and provocation.”

Israeli undercover police officers arrest a man during clashes at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, April 3, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz noted that Israeli security forces are acting more cautiously this year, refraining from erecting dividers to prevent gatherings at Damascus Gate, as was done last year, in order to allow for a “holiday atmosphere” as much as possible. He added that the handful of Palestinian rioters who have clashed with Israeli troops over the past couple of days are not representative of the majority that is interested in celebrating the holiday period in peace.

Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem from its Jordanian occupiers in 1967, annexed the area and considers it to be part of sovereign Israel. The Palestinians seek the area as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Hours after Lapid’s visit, 10 Palestinians were arrested in clashes with security forces at Damascus Gate, with at least one police officer and 14 Palestinians wounded, according to reports. The previous night, four Palestinians were arrested at the site during rioting.

Over the past two weeks, 11 people have been killed in terrorist attacks across Israel in three separate incidents in Beersheba, Hadera, and Bnei Brak. With the onset of Ramadan and the approach of Passover, officials have warned that tensions could continue to escalate.

On Sunday, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry condemned “the Israeli escalation in the Palestinian territories in recent days,” citing in particular recent visits by Jews to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.

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