Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir walks past the Dome of the Rock at Haram Al Sharif, which also houses Al Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem. Image Credit: Twitter/Ben Gvir

JERUSALEM: Israel’s extreme-right firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir visited Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque compound on Tuesday for the first time since becoming a minister, his spokesman said.

The move by firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir has enraged Palestinians, while the United States said any unilateral action that jeopardises status quo of Jerusalem holy sites is unacceptable.

The UAE has strongly condemned the minister’s storming of the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem and highlighted the need to halt grave and provocative violations.

“The UAE strongly condemns Israeli minister’s storming of the Al Aqsa Mosque under the protection of Israeli forces,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

The ministry highlighted the UAE’s unchanged stand about the need to provide full protection for the Al Aqsa Mosque and reiterated the need to cease grave and provocative violations.

A Saudi statement said: “The foreign ministry expresses the condemnation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of the provocative action by an Israeli official who stormed the Al Aqsa mosque compound.”

Violation of international law

Jordan, the custodian of Al Aqsa mosque compound, criticised the visit, saying it had violated international law and “the historic and legal status quo in Jerusalem”.

The foreign ministry of Egypt - which serves as a key mediator in Gaza - warned “of the negative consequences of such actions on security and stability” in the Palestinian territories and the wider region.

Turkey also condemned the “provocative act” by Ben-Gvir.

Ankara’s statement came amid efforts by Turkey and Israel to normalise ties, after a four-year deterioration in relations, and mutual appointment of ambassadors.

“We are concerned by the provocative act of Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir towards Al Aqsa Mosque under the protection of Israeli police and we condemn it,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

“We call on Israel to act responsibly to prevent such provocations that will violate the status and sanctity of holy places in Jerusalem and escalate tension in the region,” it said.

Status quo

The visit was also criticised by the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson said: “The United States stands firmly for preservation of the status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. Any unilateral action that jeopardises the status quo is unacceptable.”

The United States calls on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to preserve his commitment to the status quo of holy sites.

The US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said Washington “has made it clear to the Israeli government it opposes any steps that could harm the status quo in the holy sites”.

‘Freedom of movement’

“Our government will not surrender to the threats of Hamas,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement published by his spokesman, after the Palestinian militant group warned such a move was a “red line”.

Ben-Gvir’s visit comes days after he took office as national security minister, a position which gives him powers over the police.

Al Aqsa mosque is the third-holiest place in Islam and the most sacred site to Jews, who refer to the compound as the Temple Mount.

“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,” he said.

Lying within Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, the compound is administered by the Waqf Islamic affairs council, with Israeli forces operating there and controlling access.

Ben-Gvir has lobbied to overhaul management of the site to allow Jewish prayer there, a move opposed by mainstream rabbinical authorities.

Waqf guards told AFP that Ben-Gvir was accompanied by units of the Israeli security forces, while a drone hovered above the holy site.

Ben-Gvir in a file photo. Image Credit: AP
Who is Ben-Gvir?
Ben-Gvir is head of the ultranationalist religious Jewish Power faction and has a history of inflammatory remarks and actions against Palestinians.
For years seen as a fringe figure, the Jewish Power leader entered mainstream politics with the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ben-Gvir has advocated 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.
He launched his ministerial career on December 29, as part of Israel’s most right-wing government in history led by Netanyahu.
A day earlier, opposition leader Yair Lapid, who until last week was Israel’s prime minister, spoke out against Ben-Gvir’s intended visit, saying it would “lead to violence that will endanger human lives and cost human lives.”
His visit came following months of mounting tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. On Monday, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem said 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2004, a period of intense violence that came during a Palestinian uprising. It said nearly 150 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Israeli military has been conducting near-daily raids into Palestinian cities and towns since a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis killed 19 last spring. A fresh wave of attacks killed at least another nine Israelis in the fall.
In Tuesday’s shooting incident, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Adam Ayyad, 15, died of a bullet wound to the chest. The Israeli military said Border Police officers came under attack in the Dheisha refugee camp next to Bethlehem. It said troops shot at people throwing firebombs and confirmed that a person was shot.
The Israeli army says most of the Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in confrontations have also been killed.

After he left the site on Tuesday morning, visitors arrived at the plaza and the situation remained quiet.

While Ben-Gvir has visited the compound numerous times since entering parliament in April 2021, his presence as a top minister carries far greater weight.

A controversial visit in 2000 by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon was one of the main triggers for the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted until 2005.

‘Serious threat’

The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit as an “unprecedented provocation and a serious threat to the arena of conflict”.

Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official, last week warned such a step would be “a big red line and it will lead to an explosion”.

Following Ben-Gvir’s visit, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem deemed 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.

Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israeli police officers were wounded in the preceding clashes across east Jerusalem, initially sparked by restrictions on Palestinians gathering and possible evictions of residents.