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Netanyahu aide: Claims status quo was defied are 'baseless'

Wave of international criticism after Ben Gvir visits flashpoint Temple Mount

Jordan summons envoy; condemnations from UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt; calls to maintain status quo from US, Europe; Palestinian Authority PM: Plot ‘to turn Al-Aqsa into Jewish temple’

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

Israel’s new government faced a wave of international condemnation on Tuesday after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir paid a morning visit to the flashpoint Temple Mount site, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Amid the chorus of denunciation, police reportedly raised their alertness level in Jerusalem.

Jordan, which views itself as a custodian of the Temple Mount — a status Israel does not recognize, though it acknowledged the kingdom’s “special role” at the site in the countries’ 1994 peace treaty — castigated Israel over the far-right minister’s visit.

“Jordan condemns in the severest of terms the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and violation of its sanctity,” the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to the Reuters news agency.

Ben Gvir did not enter the mosque. He made a 15-minute visit to the Temple Mount compound around 7 a.m. — during the time Jews are allowed to enter the site. He had visited on numerous previous occasions, but Tuesday’s trip carried more weight as it was his first as a minister.

Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, Eitan Surkis, was called into Jordan’s Foreign Ministry offices for a dressing-down, according to Hebrew media reports. Surkis told the Jordanians that Israel remained committed to the status quo, that there had not been any violations of the agreement and that Israeli ministers have visited the site in the past.

After the visit, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Israel said the status quo must be maintained at holy sites, and that Jerusalem understood Washington’s position on the matter.

“Ambassador Nides has been very clear in conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites. Actions that prevent that are unacceptable,” the spokesperson said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council warned against any steps that would jeopardize the status quo and said the US expects Netanyahu to uphold it.

“The United States stands firmly for preservation of the status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem,” the NSC spokesperson said in a statement. “Any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo is unacceptable.”

The United Arab Emirates condemned Ben Gvir and denounced his “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.” The Gulf nation also called for an end to “serious and provocative violations.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been slated to soon visit the UAE on his first official trip, but it was postponed on Tuesday due to “logistical reasons.” Officials denied there was any connection between the trip’s cancellation and Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, the Ynet news site reported.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry also joined the wave of condemnation over “the provocative action by an Israeli official who stormed” the flashpoint site. Netanyahu has frequently expressed hope for progress in normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has conditioned the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said: “Egypt deplores the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by an Israeli official” and warned of “negative repercussions” to security and stability in the region.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry condemned the “provocative act by the Israeli minister of national security.”

“We call on Israel to act responsibly to prevent such provocations that will violate the status and sanctity of holy places in Jerusalem and escalate the tension in the region,” Turkey said.

Qatar also blasted Ben Gvir’s visits and warned that Israeli policy would be responsible for further a deterioration in the security situation on the ground.

Bahrain’s foreign ministry said the visit was a “provocation against Muslims and a violation of international law.”

The French embassy in Israel confirmed its “absolute commitment” to the preservation of the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem.

“Any gesture aimed at casting doubt on it carries a risk of escalation and must be avoided,” the French statement read.

The United Kingdom issued a similar statement, with Israel envoy Ambassador Neil Wigan tweeting: “The UK remains committed to supporting the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. It is important that all actors avoid actions at those sites that inflame tensions.”

File: Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the International Convention Center, on February 1, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In Israel, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef criticized Ben Gvir for the visit.

“As a minister representing the government of Israel you should be acting according to Chief Rabbinate instructions, which have long forbidden visiting the Temple Mount,” Yosef wrote in a letter to Ben Gvir.

Yosef called on Ben Gvir to stop doing so “in order not to mislead the public.”

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu was committed to “strictly protecting the status quo on the Temple Mount without any change.”

The official said that Israel “will not surrender to Hamas directives,” and noted that as part of the status quo, ministers have visited the Temple Mount in the past, including former public security minister Gilad Erdan.

“The claim that there is a change in the status quo is baseless,” the official concluded.

The Temple Mount is revered by Jews as the historic location of the two Jewish Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. It is also the third-holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

Many Palestinians reject the notion that the site is holy to Jews, having accused Israel and Zionists for around a century of plotting to destroy the mosque and replace it with a Jewish temple — a move that is not supported by mainstream Israeli society.

Ben Gvir’s visit came hours after reports said that he had agreed to postpone his planned trip following a meeting with Netanyahu, and despite condemnation from the opposition and threats from the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

The Tuesday visit was held on the 10th of Tevet, a Jewish fast day mourning the events that led to the destruction of the Temple.

According to Channel 12 news, police raised their alertness level in Jerusalem in the hours after Ben Gvir’s visit. There was no official announcement on the matter.

Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, almost two decades after Amman conquered it during the War of Independence in 1948. However, Israel allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount.

Alleged provocations and violence at the site have frequently turned into wider conflagrations.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who on Monday warned the visit would lead to bloodshed, said that Ben Gvir had highlighted weakness on the part of Netanyahu.

“The State of Israel does not accept dictates from anyone regarding its security, but to quarrel with half the world just so that Ben Gvir can spend 13 minutes on the Temple Mount is political irresponsibility and incredible weakness from Netanyahu in the face of his ministers,” Lapid tweeted on Tuesday.

“This is what happens when a weak prime minister is compelled to entrust the most irresponsible person in the Middle East with responsibility over the most combustible place in the Middle East,” Lapid added.

Visitors to the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023 (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Diplomats from several unnamed Arab states reportedly reached out to Jerusalem ahead of Ben Gvir’s visit to express their concern, saying such steps could lead to a deterioration of the security situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the broader region.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry condemned the visit on Tuesday, calling it an “unprecedented provocation and a dangerous escalation of the conflict.”

“Netanyahu bears responsibility for this attack on Al-Aqsa,” the PA said in a statement.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh claimed such “incursions” were an attempt “to turn the Al-Aqsa Mosque into a Jewish temple.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh holds a briefing with foreign press at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 10, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Netanyahu on Monday discussed with Ben Gvir the latter’s stated intention to visit the site. The content of the conversation was not made public. A statement issued by Ben Gvir’s office after their talks had said he would visit the Temple Mount “in the upcoming weeks.” Netanyahu’s office gave no indication that he sought to prevent the visit.

The visit by Ben Gvir, whose ministry is in charge of the police force, was held after an assessment with security and police officials, his office said in a statement.

“The Israeli government won’t capitulate to a murderous organization, to a repugnant terrorist group,” Ben Gvir said in the course of his visit, referring to Hamas threats. “The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel. The Temple Mount is open to all — Muslims, Christians and, yes, Jews too. Jews too. There won’t be racist discrimination in a government in which I am a member. Jews will ascend to the Temple Mount.”

“We maintain freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians, but Jews also go up to the site, and those who make threats must be dealt with, with an iron fist,” he added at the conclusion of his visit, which reportedly lasted some 15 minutes and passed without immediate incident.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Hamas terror group had warned that a visit by Ben Gvir to the site would be a “detonator,” and vowed resistance.

MK Zvika Fogel from Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party was asked Tuesday during an interview with the Ynet news outlet about the terror group potentially reacting to the visit with rocket fire.

Fogel said if this were to happen, “If it’s up to me, Gaza burns.”

“We’ll start a policy of targeted killings of [Hamas] platoon commanders and above,” said Fogel, a former IDF general and designated chair of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee.

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel in Jerusalem on November 14, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Fogel also said that despite a coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud to maintain the status quo at holy sites, including the Temple Mount, the issue would be raised by Otzma Yehudit.

“I assume that in the future we will request a discussion in the government about changing the status quo,” he said.

On Monday, Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Almog Cohen told the Kan public broadcaster that the faction’s “aspiration is, yes, God willing, for all religions to be able to pray on the Temple Mount,” Reuters reported.

Ben Gvir has long been an advocate of formally altering the Temple Mount status quo, in which Muslims are allowed to pray and enter with few restrictions, while Jews can visit only during limited time slots via a single gate and walk on a predetermined route, closely accompanied by police. Jews are not allowed to pray at the site or to bring in any religious items or Israeli flags, though recent years have increasingly seen police allow some silent prayer.

Israeli security forces escort a group of religious Jews as they visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 31, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Palestinians and most of the international community vehemently reject any changes to the current situation, although most Palestinians also object to any Israeli Jewish presence at the site, including of police officers tasked with preserving security.

Netanyahu has sought to assure Israel’s allies that he will not allow any changes, 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.

Ben Gvir is head of one of the three far-right parties in Netanyahu’s nascent coalition.

The newly minted national security minister, who has long been accused of being a provocateur, made several trips to the Temple Mount as an activist and Knesset member and has also led contentious nationalist marches through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. On several occasions, he set up an ad hoc office in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which has also been at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, kindling unrest.

His last visit to the Temple Mount was about three months ago, ahead of the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.

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