Far-right Israeli minister’s visit to al-Aqsa Mosque sparks global outrage

Far-Right Police Minister: ‘The Temple Mount Is Open To All’.
The United Arab Emirates and China are seeking a UN Security Council meeting, likely on Thursday.
Netanyahu promises to guarantee the ‘status quo’ of the holy places.

JERUSALEM: The United Nations and the United States led a chorus of international criticism of Israel’s new far-right national security minister’s visit to the super-sensitive Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Itamar Ben-Gvir briefly visited the compound of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a site also revered by Jews, angering Palestinians and prompting a great deal of condemnation.

“The Temple Mount is open to all,” Ben-Gvir said on Twitter, using the site’s Jewish name. Video footage showed him strolling around the periphery of the compound, surrounded by a strong security detail and flanked by a fellow Orthodox Jew.

“The Temple Mount is open to all and if Hamas thinks that threatening me will deter me, then understand that times have changed,” he wrote.

Although the visit to the hotspot site was uneventful, it risked escalating friction with the Palestinians after a spate of violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2022.

Diplomats said both the United Arab Emirates and China have asked the UN Security Council to meet publicly to discuss the issue, likely on Thursday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would seek condemnation from the Security Council, according to a statement carried by the Palestinian news agency WAFA.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “calls on everyone to refrain from taking measures that could increase tensions in and around holy sites,” said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.

When asked about the visit, a White House National Security Council spokesman said any unilateral action that endangers the status quo of Jerusalem’s holy sites is unacceptable.

In an apparent effort to cool down, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister was fully committed to the site’s decades-old status quo that allows only Muslim worship there.

Al Aqsa is a symbol of Palestinian hopes of securing a state, a goal that looks increasingly bleak with Ben-Gvir and other far-right allies now in Netanyahu’s government.

The European Union envoy for the Middle East, Sven Koopmans, said the status quo must be maintained.

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides “has been very clear in discussions with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo,” a US embassy statement said.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both among the few Arab states to have recognized Israel, condemned the visit, with Saudi Arabia also criticizing Ben-Gvir’s move.

Turkey, which recently ended a longstanding diplomatic dispute with Israel, condemned the visit as “provocative.”

The Al Aqsa compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site in Judaism, a remnant of two ancient Jewish temples.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its undivided capital, a status not recognized internationally. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem, where the compound is located, as the capital of a state that also encompasses the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday, pious Jews fasted to commemorate the Babylonian siege of the first of those temples, in the sixth century B.C.

Ben-Gvir oversees Israeli police who are formally tasked with enforcing a ban on Jewish prayer at the compound. He said that freedom of movement would be respected there, not to mention freedom of worship.

Not far from the compound, Israel Police said Tuesday it was investigating the vandalism of headstones at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery.

Security camera footage circulating on social media showed two young men, one dressed in Orthodox Jewish attire, entering the cemetery, knocking over a cross-shaped tombstone and smashing it with stones. Reuters could not immediately verify the images.

An Israeli official said the 15-minute visit by Ben-Gvir, a senior member of Netanyahu’s new religious-nationalist cabinet, complied with an agreement allowing non-Muslims to visit but not pray.

Ben-Gvir once advocated ending the ban on Jewish prayer at the sensitive site, but has not engaged on the issue since he sided with Netanyahu. Other members of Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party still advocate such a move.

Jordan, the custodian of Al Aqsa and whose 1994 peace deal with Israel is unpopular at home, summoned the Israeli ambassador and said the visit had violated international law and “the historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on Palestinians to confront what he described as raids on the compound and accused Ben-Gvir of staging the visit as part of an attempt to turn the shrine “into a Jewish temple.” .

Israel denies having any such designs. An official in Netanyahu’s office said that “claims of a change in the status quo are unfounded.”

A Hamas spokesman said: “Continuation of this behavior will bring all parties closer to a major showdown.”

The leader of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah group, Hassan Nasrallah, said that any violation of the status quo would lead to an explosion in the entire region.

Ben-Gvir’s rise in Netanyahu’s government, one of the most right-wing in Israeli history, has deepened Palestinian anger over his failed efforts to secure a state on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. .

Hours before the visit, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager in a clash near Bethlehem, medical officials and witnesses said, the latest death in a growing number in the West Bank. Israel’s army said troops fired on Palestinians who threw explosives, stones and firebombs at them.

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