Netanyahu overrules Ben Gvir: Temple Mount access on Ramadan to be like previous years

Rejecting restrictions on Israeli Arabs, PM says freedom of worship will be maintained, with weekly review, amid worries Hamas, Iran may stir up violence; far-right minister fumes

File: Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan, Jerusalem's Old City, April 17, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90/File)
File: Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan, Jerusalem's Old City, April 17, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90/File)

Israel will not reduce the number of worshipers allowed to pray on the Temple Mount in the first week of Ramadan from the levels in previous years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced Tuesday amid serious concerns over efforts by Hamas and its backer Iran to stir up violence at the flashpoint site and in Jerusalem in general during the Muslim holy month.

The premier’s office said that a “situational assessment around security and safety” will be made every week and that “a decision will be made accordingly.”

“Ramadan is holy for Muslims, and the sanctity of the holiday will be preserved this year, as it is every year,” Netanyahu’s office pledged, effectively dismissing restrictions sought by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, including on Arab Israelis’ access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the mount.

This year’s Ramadan comes amid tinderbox tensions stemming from the ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, triggered by the group’s shock October 7 attack, when thousands of terrorists rampaged through southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

Internal tensions have mounted over the issue as the security establishment has been split on arrangements for access to the Temple Mount, where hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshipers are expected to seek prayer time during the holy month, which will begin on March 10 or 11.

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, where two biblical Temples once stood, and Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest shrine in Islam, making the site a central flashpoint of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims crowd the site for prayers each Ramadan, as religious fervor is heightened. While Israel has imposed restrictions on Palestinian access during times of heightened security tensions, it has refrained from imposing those rules on the country’s Muslim minority.

Palestinian Hamas supporters chant slogans and flash gestures with flags of the terror group outside the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan on April 7, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Officials have expressed worries that the sensitive period could amplify tensions stemming from the war in Gaza, which has ignited worldwide Muslim anger toward Israel.

In a session headed by Netanyahu on preparations for the holy month, and preceding the announcement, the prime minister said: “Israel’s policy has always been and will always be to maintain the freedom of worship for all religions. We of course have always acted this way during the Ramadan holiday and we will act like this now.”

The session was attended by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and war cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot, as well as Ben Gvir.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi was also at the session, as were the heads of the National Security Council, the Shin Bet, the Israel Police and other senior security and political officials.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on May 23, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

“We will do everything to maintain the freedom of worship on the Temple Mount, while appropriately maintaining security and safety needs, and we will allow the Muslim public to celebrate the holiday,” Netanyahu said.

Following the announcement, Ben Gvir accused Netanyahu of “endangering” Israelis.

“The decision to allow a similar ascension to the Temple Mount on Ramadan as in previous years shows that Netanyahu and the limited [war] cabinet think that nothing occurred on October 7,” he said. “The decision endangers the citizens of Israel and may allow an image of victory for Hamas.”

Ben Gvir also took to X, formerly Twitter, with criticism of the decision, writing that “Hamas celebrations on the Temple Mount” are not the “total victory” Israel promised to achieve over the Gaza terror group.

MK Mansour Abbas, chairman of the Islamist Ra’am party, thanked Netanyahu for the “responsible decision” and called on the “Arab public to exercise their right to pray and observe the commandments during the holy month, while maintaining the law and public order.”

Abbas was traveling to Jordan on Tuesday at the invitation of King Abdullah II “to discuss the issues of the war and the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in preparation for the holy month of Ramadan,” he told Ynet Monday when three Arab lawmakers from other parties also held discussions with Abdullah on the subject in Amman.

Ra’am party head MK Mansour Abbas attends a conference hosted by the Israel Hayom daily, in Jerusalem, September 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s decision came just two days after sustained disagreements on the matter among security chiefs were reported by Channel 12.

According to the report, at the meeting Sunday to cover security arrangements for the upcoming fasting month, Gallant, Halevi and Bar said Israel should avoid creating an environment that might motivate lone-wolf terrorists to carry out attacks, amid intelligence information pointing to “considerable efforts” being made by Iran to foster unrest.

The trio argued that the maximum possible number of worshipers should be permitted to access the Temple Mount, in line with its capacity, and that no restrictions be placed on Arab Israelis, the unsourced report said.

The Temple Mount compound, which is mostly a large outdoor area, has a capacity of some 400,000 people, though daily attendance is usually much lower.

However, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai was looking to limit attendance to 50,000-60,000 people and for only Arab Israelis over 40 to be allowed access “in the initial stage” of Ramadan, the report said. Shabtai told the meeting that younger Arabs, whether Israeli or from East Jerusalem, are the main “agitators” and should therefore be barred.

Ben Gvir, who oversees the police, was only looking to allow a few thousand on the mount at any one time, with heavy restrictions on Arab Israelis, the report said. Ben Gvir has been saying since last month that Palestinians should be barred altogether.

In February, a US official and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration was highly concerned that Ben Gvir, through his policies and actions, could spark unrest at the Temple Mount during Ramadan.

Most Popular
read more: