ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Inside storyWashington hoping Netanyahu will again overrule Ben Gvir

US wary Ben Gvir could inflame tensions at Temple Mount over Ramadan — officials

Administration worried visit by far-right minister during fraught period risks dragging Jerusalem into broader conflict, is pushing for truce by start of holy month in March

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tours the Temple Mount on Tisha B'Av, July 27, 2023. (Temple Mount Administration)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tours the Temple Mount on Tisha B'Av, July 27, 2023. (Temple Mount Administration)

The Biden administration is highly concerned that far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir will try and spark tensions at the Temple Mount during Ramadan next month, in what Washington fears could drag the flashpoint issue of Jerusalem into the ongoing Middle East conflict that it’s seeking to contain, a US official and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The US is worried that Ben Gvir will again visit the Temple Mount during Ramadan, which begins around March 10, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The firebrand lawmaker has toured the site three times since becoming a minister in December 2022, drawing a flood of condemnations each time from Israel’s allies around the globe who view such a step by a politician who has long called for upending the fragile status quo at the site as provocative.

Under the status quo, an arrangement that has prevailed for decades in cooperation with Jordan, Jews and other non-Muslims are permitted to tour the Temple Mount during certain hours but may not pray there. In recent years, record numbers of Jewish religious nationalists have visited the site and many have begun praying there as police have increasingly refrained from cracking down on the apparent violation. This has infuriated Palestinians and Muslims around the world who often view these measures as part of an effort to restrict their presence at the compound, which is the third holiest in Islam and the holiest in Judaism, having been the site of the two ancient Jewish temples.

Those fears peak each year during the Islamic month of fasting when the holy site sees a major influx of Muslim visitors, some of whom are known to clash with police.

But this year there is even greater concern due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, which was sparked by the October 7 terror onslaught in which some 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage. Hamas named the attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” after the mosque atop the Temple Mount, and Iran-backed armed groups in other countries that have joined in the conflict also include references to Jerusalem in their messaging.

As minister in charge of police, Ben Gvir plays a critical role in law enforcement at the site, and there’s concern in Washington as well as within the Israeli security establishment that a directive from above for officers to come down too hard on agitators or enter the Al Aqsa Mosque to quash clashes could risk sparking violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and beyond, the Israeli official said.

Children stand atop a small hill near tents at a make-shift shelter for Palestinians who fled to Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

For the past three years, Biden officials have sounded alarm bells ahead of Ramadan, urging Jerusalem to take steps to lower tensions amid fears of tensions in the city bubbling over, as they did in May 2021 when Hamas rocket fire at the city sparked the last war between Israel and the Gaza-ruling terror group.

US officials hailed Netanyahu’s government for heeding last year when the premier overrode Ben Gvir’s call to allow Jewish worshipers to continue visiting the Temple Mount on the final 10 days of Ramadan, which would’ve gone against longstanding Israeli policy.

There was particular concern in recent years due to the overlap of Ramadan with the holiday of Passover, which also brings with it an uptick of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount. This year though, Passover will take place several weeks after Ramadan concludes.

Ben Gvir’s last visit to the Temple Mount was in July during the Tisha B’Av fast day, and it led Bahrain to postpone the trip of then foreign minister Eli Cohen to Manama.

He sought to tour the site again during last fall’s Jewish holiday season but was said to have been talked down from the idea by Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar.

Ben Gvir has pledged to continue visiting the site, and has increasingly called on the government to take a less conciliatory approach during the war, which has seen his far-right Otzma Yehudit party climb in many polls.

Police clash with Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 5, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Accordingly, the US and Israeli officials who spoke with The Times of Israel expressed concern that the national security minister will be harder to talk down this time around.

Such apprehensions are part of why the Biden administration is keen to secure an extended humanitarian pause in Gaza before Ramadan begins next month, the US official explained.

“If a lid isn’t put on this by then, we’ll be looking at an even more dangerous picture,” the official said, adding that Blinken was sure to raise the issue with Israeli leaders during his meetings in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Ben Gvir’s office declined a request to comment on the matter.

The national security minister had several of his colleagues rushing to conduct damage control earlier this week after he told the Wall Street Journal that the Biden administration’s handling of the war was benefitting Hamas and that Israel would have been better off dealing with a second Trump administration.

Ben Gvir’s son later likened Biden to an Alzheimer’s patient in a post that led the minister to apologize and order it be taken down.

Palestinians, including one waving a Hamas flag, clash with Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound on April 22, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid warned Monday that if Ben Gvir is allowed to determine police conduct on the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the city will “go up in flames.”

“The country is not ready for this. There is no preparation. There were no operational and political discussions at an adequate level. We are headed for disaster, another disaster,” Lapid claimed.

“This is what [Ben Gvir] wants, but it is not what the State of Israel needs,” Lapid said of Ben Gvir, calling on Netanyahu to restrict the minister’s authority and to appoint a team to oversee Israel’s preparations for the volatile period.

“We didn’t need the interview in the Wall Street Journal to remind us that Ben Gvir is a dangerous clown who prefers to light fires instead of putting them out, but during Ramadan, this could cause an all-out conflagration that would cost human lives,” he added.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was asked Monday about Ben Gvir’s involvement in arrangements for Ramadan prayers on the Temple Mount to which he responded, “I am busy with issues of the security establishment,” adding that the far-right minister is not a key decision-maker in security issues.

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