IDF chief spars with ministers over 'slow' Gaza offensive

Security chiefs split on Temple Mount Ramadan plans amid worry over Iran troublemaking

Defense minister, army, Shin Bet urge ‘maximal’ access during Ramadan to avoid tensions that could motivate lone-wolf terrorists; Ben Gvir, police want restrictions – report

People walk in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on January 7, 2024. (Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)
People walk in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on January 7, 2024. (Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief Herzi Halevi, and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar have urged maximal freedom of access for Muslim worshipers to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount during Ramadan, with no limitations on Arab Israelis, given concern over efforts by Iran, as well as the Hamas terror group, to stir up violence, Channel 12 news reported Monday.

With a fast-approaching Sunday evening deadline for the start of the month-long Ramadan, the security establishment has still not agreed on arrangements for access to the flashpoint Temple Mount, where hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshipers are expected to seek prayer time during the holy month.

This year’s Ramadan comes amid tinderbox tensions against the background of the ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that began when the Palestinian terror group carried out a devastating October 7 attack on Israel.

At a meeting Sunday with security chiefs, 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 worshippers 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 wants to limit attendance to 50,000-60,000 people and wants 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.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (right) and other defense officials during an assessment, December 22, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

For his part, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees the police, wants only 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.

Police sources insisted their stance was based on professional assessments and not due to any political pressure, and noted that similar arrangements had been applied two years ago and that outside consultants agreed with their assessment, Channel 12 reported.

National Security Itamar Ben Gvir leads an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Ben Gvir and Shabtai on Monday to hear their recommendations on what restrictions to enact, alongside discussions between Shin Bet security agency and IDF officials. The meeting was delayed as Netanyahu has the flu. The Prime Minister’s Office said it will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

The TV report quoted an unnamed senior security source, saying: “The desire by Iran and Hamas to set the Middle East alight via the Temple Mount, together with the irresponsible remarks by politicians and the absence of decisions, are driving us crazy.”

The first meeting on Ramadan arrangements for the Temple Mount was held two weeks ago, and Channel 12 reported that all security officials were of the same view that a decision should have already been made.

MK Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist party Ra’am, told Ynet that he would be 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.”

On Monday, three Arab lawmakers from other parties also held discussions with Abdullah on the subject in Amman.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attends a Rosh Hashanah ceremony at police headquarters in Jerusalem on September 13, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/ Flash90)

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, where two biblical Temples once stood, and the third-holiest site in Islam, making it 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.

Officials have expressed worries that the sensitive period could amplify tensions stemming from the war in Gaza — sparked by Hamas’s October 7 massacres — which has ignited worldwide Muslim anger toward Israel.

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.

Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers attend the last Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 14, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The Hamas October 7 attack killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, amid horrific atrocities including widespread gang rape, torture, and mutilation of victims.  Thousands of attackers burst into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip with terrorists abducting  253 people who were taken as hostages in the Palestinian enclave.

Israel responded with a military campaign to destroy Hamas, topple its regime in Gaza, and free the hostages.

Halevi vs. ministers

Meanwhile, disagreements between ministers and army chief Halevi reached new depths at a recent cabinet meeting, Channel 12 said in another unsourced report Monday.

Several ministers at the recent meeting reportedly protested to Halevi that the IDF ground operation had not been effective enough, that it was too slow, and that it was a mistake to leave the tackling of Rafah to last.

Halevi responded by reminding ministers that they had not wanted any ground operation at all, the report said.

“If the IDF and the security establishment hadn’t pushed on it, we wouldn’t have been maneuvering at all in Gaza,” he reportedly said.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks during an assessment in northern Israel, February 27, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Rafah, a southern Gaza city, is the last Hamas stronghold that has not been overrun by the IDF. Israel has vowed to conquer the city, where it believes Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is hiding underground in the terror group’s vast network of tunnels, possibly keeping some of the hostages within as human shields.

There is grave concern in the international community, including from the US, that an IDF offensive in Rafah would come with unbearable civilian casualties.

Displaced Palestinians walk around in an UNRWA school housing displaced Palestinians, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2024, (AFP)

The IDF military offensive is facing increasing criticism and pushback from the global community due to the rising death toll and worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which has suffered enormous destruction, the displacement of over a million people, and a shortage of aid deliveries that struggle to arrive due to the fighting.

Efforts by international mediators to negotiate a lull in the fighting have so far failed to reach an agreement.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 30,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

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