The United Nations Security Council set an emergency meeting for Thursday to discuss far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount, as the Palestinian mission to the UN urged members of the council to use the opportunity to act against Israel in order to avert a “religious war.”
Israel, which lobbied members against holding the session, was focused Tuesday on convincing the Security Council to not issue a joint statement censuring the Jewish state after the meeting, a diplomat on the council told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.
A statement, unlike a resolution, would not be legally binding but would require the unanimous approval of all members. The US is unlikely to back such a measure singling out Israel at the UN, which it has frequently argued is not the platform for pursuing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, Ben Gvir’s Tuesday visit to the Temple Mount struck a nerve in Washington, and the Security Council diplomat speculated that the Biden administration might be swayed to sign off on what it perceives as a balanced statement in favor of maintaining the so-called status quo at the Jerusalem holy site.
The unwritten policy governing the compound allows Muslims 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, and cannot openly pray.
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 site for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.
Ben Gvir’s visit Tuesday — held on the 10th of Tevet, a Jewish fast day mourning the events that led to the destruction of the First Temple — was his first trip to the holy site since taking up his ministerial post last week. Ben Gvir is the head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, a part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
Asked about the Security Council meeting, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday, “We stand firmly for the preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. Any unilateral actions that depart from that historic status quo are unacceptable.”
Price said the US would “be ready to reiterate our views to our fellow council members” when they convene on Thursday.
The 3 p.m. session in New York will be open to the press, and Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan has been invited to offer remarks along with his Palestinian counterpart Riyad Mansour.
The meeting was formally requested by China and the United Arab Emirates, which is the Arab League’s current representative on the Security Council. The request was made on behalf of the Palestinian and Jordanian missions, which do not currently sit on the council.
Israel insists that it is committed to maintaining the status quo and that ministers — including Erdan, a former government minister — visited the site in the past.
But critics have argued that Ben Gvir is no ordinary minister, given his history as a provocateur and his longstanding ties to Jewish extremists. Ben Gvir himself also admitted in a Tuesday interview that police have allowed Jewish prayer to quietly take place on the site for years in violation of the status quo. He refused to say after his Tuesday visit whether he would push for changing the status quo at the site to enable Jewish prayer. Ben Gvir’s ministry oversees the police force.
In a video clip taken during his early morning visit, Ben Gvir decried what he called “racist discrimination” against Jewish worshipers at the site and said the visits would continue.
“The Israeli government won’t surrender to a murderous organization, to a vile terrorist organization,” said Ben Gvir in response to threats from Hamas and other terror groups, which had warned of repercussions if the tour went ahead.
On Wednesday, Palestinian UN envoy Mansour penned a letter to Japan — which holds the presidency of the Security Council for the month of January — in which he blasted Ben Gvir’s “storming” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyards.
“The Security Council must condemn and demand an immediate halt to all aggressions by Israel, the occupying power, against the Palestinian people and their holy sites, especially in Jerusalem,” Mansour wrote, making no mention of Jewish ties to the compound.
He called Ben Gvir’s visit a “breach of international law, which absolutely prohibits the occupying power from altering the character, status and demography of the occupied territory.”
“Only such urgent, serious action can avert the violent explosion and religious war that this Israeli government and its hateful, racist extremists are threatening to provoke,” Mansour wrote.
Israel considers Jerusalem its undivided capital and annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized by most of the international community. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of a potential future state.
A Jew visiting the holiest site in Judaism doesn’t deviate from the status quo. Israel has maintained the status quo for many years, even though it discriminates against Jews & Christians who can only visit, not pray. Anyone who says differently jeopardizes security & stability. pic.twitter.com/aNYyPX2yZ3
— Ambassador Gilad Erdan גלעד ארדן (@giladerdan1) January 3, 2023
Many Palestinians reject the notion that the Temple Mount 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.
The Temple Mount has been the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, most recently in April last year and tensions at the disputed compound have fueled past rounds of violence.
A visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in September 2000 was followed by significant Palestinian riots and clashes that became the second Palestinian intifada. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian rioters seeking to prevent Jews from entering the site fueled an 11-day war with Hamas in 2021.