Extremist Israeli Cabinet minister visits sensitive Jerusalem holy site
Associated Press May 21, 2023
JERUSALEM — A far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visited Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site on Sunday, declaring that "we are in charge," while the Israeli Cabinet held a rare meeting in Jerusalem's Old City to celebrate its control of the area.
The visit by Itamar Ben-Gvir to the disputed hilltop compound drew condemnations from the Palestinians and Israel's neighbor, Jordan. The site is revered by Jews and Muslims, and the competing claims lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ben-Gvir, a former West Bank settler leader and far-right activist who years ago was convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terror group, now serves as Israel's national security minister, overseeing the country's police force.
The site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is the holiest site in Judaism, where the biblical Temples once stood. Today, it is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
Under longstanding arrangements, Jews are permitted to visit the site, but not to pray there. But in recent years, a growing number of Jewish visitors have begun to quietly pray, raising fears among Palestinians that Israel is plotting to divide or take over the site. Ben-Gvir has long called for increased Jewish access.
"I am happy to come up to the Temple Mount, the most important place for the Israeli people," Ben-Gvir said in a video statement made during his early morning visit, with Islam's golden Dome of the Rock in the background. He praised the police presence at the site, saying it "proves who is in charge in Jerusalem."
Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh called Ben-Gvir's visit a "blatant attack" on the mosque. Jordan, which serves as the custodian over the mosque, called it "a provocative step that is condemned, and a dangerous and unacceptable escalation." Neighboring Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, also issued a condemnation.
The visit comes days after Israelis marked Jerusalem Day, which celebrates Israel's capture of east Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Mideast war. Flag-waving nationalists marched through the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem's Old City, some singing racist anti-Arab chants, while hundreds of Jews visited the sensitive hilltop shrine, including a low-level minister from Ben-Gvir's party, but not Ben-Gvir himself.
Israel also captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move unrecognized by most of the international community and considers the city its undivided, permanent capital.
Later Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet held a special session to mark Jerusalem Day at an archaeological site near the main area of the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray and a remaining exterior wall of the biblical Temples.
At the meeting, Netanyahu reasserted Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem. He boasted of resisting international pressure to divide the city and said only a right-wing Israeli government could guarantee continued Israeli control.
"There are still those who want to divide Jerusalem and they say so openly," he said. "Only the national camp led by us will safeguard a strong and united Jerusalem."
He made no mention of Ben-Gvir's visit — the minister's second public visit to the site since taking office.
Palestinians consider the mosque a national symbol and view such visits as provocative. Most rabbis forbid Jews from praying at the site, but there has been a growing movement in recent years of Jews who support worship there.
Tensions at the disputed compound have fueled past rounds of violence.
Netanyahu formed his government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, last December. The government, which includes a collection of ultra-Orthodox and far-right nationalist parties, has made West Bank settlement construction a top priority.
Most of the international community consider Israeli settlements, home to 700,000 people in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, to be illegal and obstacles to peace.
In March, the government repealed a 2005 act that dismantled four West Bank settlements. Over the weekend, the top Israeli army general in the West Bank signed an order attaching the evacuated settlement of Homesh to a local settler regional council.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, another settler leader, praised the general's move, saying it would pave the way for the reconstruction of a Jewish seminary at the site.
Violence between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank has spiked in the last year, as Israel expanded near-nightly raids in response to a spate of Palestinian attacks.
More than 250 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the spring of 2022. About 50 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants, but stone throwing youths protesting the incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.
Earlier this month, fighting also erupted between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip. Israeli strikes killed 33, many of them militants but also women and children, and two people were killed in Israel by militant rocket fire.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.