The extreme-right Israeli firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir has visited Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound for the first time since becoming a minister, angering Palestinians who see the visit as a provocation.
“Our government will not surrender to the threats of Hamas,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement, after the Palestinian militant group had said such a move would be a “red line”.
Ben-Gvir’s visit on Tuesday came days after he took office as national security minister, a position that gives him powers over the police.
“The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel, and we maintain the freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians, but Jews will also go up to the mount, and those who make threats must be dealt with – with an iron hand,” Ben-Gvir said.
Observers have said this step, seen by the Palestinian Authority as a major provocation, could result in deadly violence and escalate tensions in the occupied territories and among Muslim citizens of Israel.
The compound, lying within the Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, is administered by the Waqf Islamic affairs council, with Israeli forces operating there and controlling access.
Under longstanding arrangements, Jews can visit but not pray at what they revere as their holiest site on which biblical temples stood, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in AD70. Muslims cherish the compound as housing Islam’s third-holiest shrine, al-Aqsa mosque, and have prayed there since the seventh century, including maintaining exclusive prayer rights there after Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 six-day war.
Ben-Gvir has said this is “discriminatory” and Jews should be permitted to pray at the compound, while allowing Muslims to pray inside the mosque.
Ben-Gvir was filmed touring the esplanade near the mosque with police and aides. Waqf guards told AFP that he was accompanied by units of the Israeli security forces while a drone hovered above the holy site. After the minister left the compound on Tuesday morning, visitors arrived at the plaza and the situation remained quiet.
Ben-Gvir has visited al-Aqsa numerous times since entering parliament in April 2021, but his presence there as a senior minister carries far greater weight. A controversial visit in 2000 by the then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, was one of the main triggers for the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted until 2005.
The Israeli opposition leader, Yair Lapid, had opposed the visit by Ben-Gvir and predicted it would lead to bloodshed.
The Palestinian Authority, which nominally rules the West Bank, called the visit “an incursion to al-Aqsa mosque” and an “unprecedented provocation”.
On Monday Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh characterised it as a bid to turn the mosque “into a Jewish temple”.
The Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem called it a “crime” and vowed the site “will remain Palestinian, Arab, Islamic”. Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and in May 2021 an 11-day war broke out in the territory between Palestinian militants and Israel after violence at al-Aqsa mosque.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also condemned the visit.
Palestinians have long said that Israel’s goal is to infringe on Muslim prayer at the site and establish Jewish primacy in order to build a third temple. Israeli governments have traditionally denied this but Jordan’s King Hussein, who has custodianship over Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem under his country’s peace treaty with Israel, has voiced concern and told the new government not to cross red lines.
Avi Dichter, an MP from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, on Monday backed Ben-Gvir’s planned visit during an interview on Israeli radio. Israeli media reported that Netanyahu, who returned to power last Thursday as head of the most far-right coalition in Israeli history, had discussed the matter with Ben-Gvir late on Monday.
Menachem Klein, a professor emeritus of political science at Bar-Ilan University and visiting fellow at the King’s College London department of war studies, said the visit offered further proof that Netanyahu “doesn’t care about international law and the advice of the Biden administration”.
For years seen as a fringe figure, Ben-Gvir, the Jewish Power party leader, entered mainstream politics with the backing of Netanyahu. He has called for Arab-Israelis deemed disloyal to the state to be expelled and for the annexation of the occupied West Bank.
Until a few years ago he had a portrait in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at a Hebron mosque in 1994.
Israel is to carry out one of the largest expulsions of Palestinian civilians since it occupied the West Bank in 1967 if residents do not agree to leave their homes in the Masafer Yatta area of the territory, Israeli and Palestinian officials have said.
The move, termed a “fast-track war crime” by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, was disclosed to Palestinians during a meeting of liaison officials from both sides, according to Nidal Younes, the head of the Masafer Yatta local council, as well as B’Tselem and another Palestinian source familiar with affairs in the area.
“We are talking about expulsion by force on a permanent basis. The Israelis said they would choose another place for the people. But our people will certainly refuse, it is impossible that they will leave their homes. The army will definitely have to use force and people will stay in their homes as long as they possibly can,” Younes said.
Younes said he did not know when the expulsion would be carried out, but B’Tselem said the Israelis had conveyed that the eviction notices could be issued within days.
In response to a query from the Guardian, the office of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) confirmed late on Monday that the fate of the Masafer Yatta villagers was discussed with Palestinian officials and that the Israeli officials stressed Israel’s view that the area in which 12 Palestinian herding hamlets were situated, housing more than 1,000 people, was strictly for use as an army training area, with no one but soldiers allowed.
COGAT referred to a supreme court decision from May last year that found that Palestinians were seasonal itinerants rather than residents, even though they traced their residency back many generations.
After that decision, which was condemned as illegal by Israeli and foreign rights groups, the previous government of Lapid and the then defence minister, Benny Gantz, increased pressure on the Palestinians to leave through demolitions of their buildings and the holding of live-fire military exercises around the villages.
The latest move comes only a day after the Netanyahu ally Bezalel Smotrich, of the Religious Zionist party, who has questioned the right of Arabs to be in the West Bank if they do not accept inferior status to Jews, took up his post as the minister overseeing COGAT.