ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Ultra-Orthodox UTJ MK Gafni wants the Mount 'closed to Jews'

Shin Bet chief said to persuade Ben Gvir to delay planned Temple Mount visit

Ronen Bar reportedly calls up the hardline minister to warn him of security ramifications, with Ben Gvir saying that while touring the holy site is sacred, the timing isn’t

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) at a conference in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023, and Ronen Bar (right), head of the Shin Bet security agency speaks at a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel; Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) at a conference in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023, and Ronen Bar (right), head of the Shin Bet security agency speaks at a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel; Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The head of the Shin Bet security agency spoke on the phone this week with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to convince him to postpone an apparently planned visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to avoid exacerbating tensions with the Palestinians, a report said Wednesday.

In the call, defined by Channel 13 news as rare, Ronen Bar told the far-right politician that the current period of Jewish holidays was “a bad time to ascend the Temple Mount” and detailed the security ramifications such a visit would have.

According to the unsourced report, Ben Gvir replied: “The ascent is sacred, but the timing isn’t sacred” — apparently agreeing to delay the visit.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City is the holiest site in Judaism, revered as the location of two ancient temples destroyed in antiquity. Three times a day for 2,000 years, observant Jews have turned to face it during prayers. Known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, the hilltop compound is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

It is one of the major flashpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with many Palestinians and Muslims around the world denying that the site is sacred to Jews and viewing any Jewish entry as a provocation — especially by high-profile hardliners like Ben Gvir, who entered the compound twice earlier this year, being met each time with fierce condemnation by Palestinians and Arab countries.

The Shin Bet responded to Wednesday’s report by saying it doesn’t comment on its members’ conversations with politicians.

A response on behalf of Ben Gvir appeared to confirm the report, saying: “The Shin Bet head and I have good work relations and are in constant contact. The issue of the Temple Mount is, too, routinely spoken about between us. Regarding the question of the timing of ascents to the Mount, I try to take into account the security considerations and situation assessments as reflected to me by the heads of the security establishment.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, center, visits the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, May 21, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

In a strongly-worded statement Wednesday perceived as an attack on Ben Gvir, Haredi MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) slammed Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, accusing those who enter the site of “violating a grave prohibition” and adding: “We have nothing to do with them, and we are demanding that the Temple Mount be closed to Jews.”

While Jewish entry to the holy site has increased in recent years, most Orthodox rabbis oppose the practice, deeming the Temple Mount too sacred to set foot in since we don’t know the exact location within the site of the Temples’ “Holy of Holies” — where according to tradition, almost any Jew would be punished by divine death if they entered. Jews who enter the Temple Mount avoid accessing a specific part of it, contending that evidence shows the Holy of Holies was situated there.

Knesset Finance Committee chair MK Moshe Gafni seen during a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Jordan, which has a “special role” in governing the Temple Mount according to the countries’ 1994 peace deal, condemned increased Jewish visits to the Temple Mount this week on the occasion of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, criticizing restricted access for Muslims seeking to worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The compound is governed by informal understandings known as the status quo, under which observant Jews are allowed to visit the site — at certain hours, under stricter restrictions than tourists and secular Jews and through a predetermined route — but not to pray there. Some Jews have increasingly been filmed praying at the site in recent years. Any Jewish visits held without prior coordination with the Islamic Waqf authorities are regarded by Jordan and the Palestinians — but not by Israel — as a violation of the status quo.

Tensions have been running high lately in Jerusalem’s Old City, with several Haredi men being arrested after being filmed spitting toward Christian worshipers. Ben Gvir condemned the incident but also criticized the arrests, saying this was “not a criminal case.”

On Sunday, Ben Gvir was reportedly hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a private meeting in an attempt to defuse tensions after Ben Gvir was excluded from a high-level meeting on security matters earlier in the day.

Ben Gvir’s absence from Sunday’s meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, military brass and other top officials amplified reports that the hardline nationalist had become an unwelcome presence at top-level security meetings due to a penchant for far-reaching demands thought liable to increase tensions with Palestinians and the international community. Netanyahu’s office later said the relations between the two were fine.

Ben Gvir did not comment about Sunday’s tensions, but during the security summit tweeted a screenshot of a news headline referring to increased Jewish visits to the Temple Mount and commenting: “This is what governance looks like!”

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