UN Security Council slated to meet on widely decried Temple Mount visit by Ben Gvir

Session unlikely to lead to formal censure but will reflect anger and concerns surrounding sensitive site, with one US official accusing far-right minister of trying to sow chaos

Jews visit the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.(AP/Maya Alleruzzo)
Jews visit the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.(AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

The United Nations Security Council will convene an emergency session to discuss firebrand National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount, which drew a flood of international condemnations, a source said Tuesday.

A date has not been set for the Security Council meeting — which was formally requested by the United Arab Emirates and China on behalf of the Palestinian and Jordanian UN missions — but it could take place as early as Thursday, a diplomat on the top panel told The Times of Israel.

Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, toured the compound Tuesday morning, decrying the alleged “racism” against Jews at the site and scorning warnings of a significant backlash. The visit stoked concerns in the Muslim world that Israel’s government would move to change the status quo prohibiting Jewish prayer at the shrine — considered the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest to Muslims, who refer to it as the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Noble Sanctuary — despite repeated vows that the regulations will remain in place.

Ben Gvir has long been an advocate for 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.

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.

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 that once stood there.

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.

The Security Council meeting on the visit is unlikely to result in any concrete action or even a formal condemnation, but will still serve to highlight the significant international disapproval of the visit by Ben Gvir.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has argued that Ben Gvir did not breach the status quo with the visit.

Israel remains committed to “strictly maintaining the status quo” at the site, the premier said in a statement. “The claim that a change has been made in the status quo is without foundation.”

Ben Gvir acknowledged though during a Tuesday night Channel 12 interview that Jews have occasionally been quietly allowed to pray at the site at some times during the past several years as police look on without acting.

In contacts with allies abroad, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry have stressed that other ministers have visited the site in the past, including a previous public security minister from the Likud party.

But none of them had a reputation like that of Ben Gvir, who draws inspiration from the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane and has been convicted in the past for incitement and supporting a Jewish terror group. He has also long called for changing the status quo at the site to allow Jewish prayer there, though he balked when asked on Tuesday night whether he still stands by that position — likely due to directives from Netanyahu, who fears international backlash as he seeks to build on normalization deals with Arab countries secured during his last term in office.

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

As national security minister, Ben Gvir has responsibility over police, who have been charged by Israel’s courts with setting and enforcing policy on the Temple Mount.

In a video clip taken during his Tuesday morning visit, Ben Gvir decried what he called “racist discrimination” against Jewish worshipers forbidden from praying atop the site. With the Dome of the Rock in the background and waving his fingers at the camera, he 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.

Among the countries condemning the visit were the US, the UK and France along with much of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Asked about the visit, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “the United States stands firmly… for the preservation of the status quo with respect to holy sites in Jerusalem.”

“Any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo is unacceptable,” she added.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides offered similar, albeit unprompted, remarks earlier Tuesday; US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the US was “deeply concerned” by Ben Gvir’s move, which has “the potential to exacerbate tensions and to provoke violence.”

United Nations Security Council vote on a draft resolution sanctioning Russia’s planned annexation of war occupied Ukraine territory, Friday Sept. 30, 2022 at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

A senior official in US President Joe Biden’s administration told the Ynet news site that Ben Gvir was “trying to cause chaos.” The White House was informed about the trip ahead of time, and told the trip would be short and not violate the status quo but Washington still protested it, according to the site.

Ben Gvir has visited the Temple Mount numerous times in the past, but the administration official noted that his ministerial position now made the move carry more weight.

“Why go up to the Temple Mount? Just to get get more views on Tiktok?” the official charged.

Israel has also scrambled to calm other allies, who have similarly responded by warning Jerusalem over the potential blowback throughout the region from such visits, even if they are short and do not violate the status quo, according to Channel 12 news.

Israel in turn has responded that if the Palestinians choose to instigate violence, it will hold Hamas or anyone else involved responsible.

Ahead of the visit, Hamas had warned Israel it would serve as “a detonator.”

Though Ben Gvir did still visit the site, the fact that he initially appeared to back away from the plans and did not initially publicize the tour was being viewed by Hamas as proof that its threats had worked, officials from the group told Arabic media.

Tourists visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Palestinians consider the compound, which holds the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine, to be a national symbol and view such visits as provocative and as a potential precursor to Israel changing the reality at the site, despite Jews being allowed to visit in accordance with the status quo. Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis forbid Jews from praying on the site, but there has been a growing movement in recent years of Jews who support worship there.

The visit fueled fears of unrest as Palestinian terror groups threatened to act in response. On Tuesday night, the Israeli military said Gaza fighters tried to launch a rocket into southern Israel but the projectile fell short and landed inside the Hamas-controlled territory.

The Temple Mount has been the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, most recently in April last year.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (2nd from left) visits the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023. (Youtube screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

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 uprising. 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.

Netanyahu returned to office last week for his sixth term as prime minister, leading the most religious, right-wing government in the country’s history. Its goals include expanding West Bank settlements and legalizing outposts throughout the disputed territory.

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.

Israel considers Jerusalem its undivided capital, having annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized by most of the international community, while the Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of a potential future state. The competing claims to Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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