It was a visit with consequences. Now that the newly inaugurated far-right Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (National Security) has visited the Temple Mount in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, relations with the Palestinians have become so tense that the United Arab Emirates has canceled a visit from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. have postponed, and the UN Security Council meets.
Five questions about the visit.
1 Why is a visit by an Israeli minister to the Temple Mount so sensitive?
The Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, is one of the holiest places in the world for both Jews and Muslims. Until its destruction by the Romans in AD 70, the Jewish Temple stood here; at the western wall of the Temple Mount complex, the Wailing Wall, hundreds of Jews pray daily. Since the late seventh century, the mountain has been home to the Al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine that is recognizable from afar by its gold-leaf roof.
After Israel captured the Temple Mount from Jordan in 1967, its management was left to a Jordanian foundation. It was then agreed that tourists and religious Jews may enter the mountain, but not pray there; that right is reserved for Muslims.
Religious Jews strongly disagree about entering the Temple Mount. Most ultra-Orthodox believe that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount because of the sanctity of the site. Religious-Zionist Jews, mostly settlers, want to appropriate the place for themselves.
In the Islamic world, this is considered an unacceptable provocation. Ben-Gvir’s visit was condemned by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
2 Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir?
Before entering politics on behalf of the Jewish Force party, Ben-Gvir was convicted of supporting Kach, a Jewish terrorist group with a religious-Zionist ideology. This group advocates, among other things, the immediate annexation of occupied territory. The sovereignty of the Temple Mount must be taken from the Muslims and given to the rabbinate.
Ben-Gvir lives in Kiryat Arba, one of the more militant Israeli settlements in the West Bank – illegal settlements under international law. Ben-Gvir regularly said that Palestinians should leave the West Bank. In his own words, he has since become less extreme. Only Palestinians who are ‘non-loyal’ to the Jewish authorities still have to leave.
By immediately visiting the Temple Mount in his first week as minister, Ben-Gvir deliberately seeks out provocation. It says a lot about his political style and vision: they are not aimed at peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, but at confrontation, with the aim of increasing Israeli rule.
3 Do Israeli politicians do this more often?
The most infamous visit by an Israeli politician to the Temple Mount took place in 2000. Then-opposition leader and Prime Minister-designate Ariel Sharon visited the Mount on September 28 of that year, surrounded by hundreds of riot police officers.
Like Ben-Gvir, Sharon had factored in the provocative effect of his visit: After leaving the complex, Palestinian rioters began throwing stones and other projectiles at Jewish worshipers at the Wailing Wall. Sharon’s visit is seen as the starting point of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that would last another five years. More than 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis were killed in this uprising, which included Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilian targets.
In recent years, more and more Jews have demanded that they be allowed to pray on the mountain in East Jerusalem. In 2014, a Palestinian assassinated Yehuda Glick, a politician from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party who had pushed for greater access for Jews to the mountain. Glick was seriously injured, but survived the attack.
4 Are the Palestinians right in their fear that the Israelis want to take over the mountain?
Some expressions of Orthodox and nationalist Jews do not bode well. For example, there is a movement that wants to rebuild the Jewish temple. Until the beginning of this century, this Temple Mount movement was considered obscure. Today, some ministers also assert themselves as messianic believers. A growing group sees the construction of a third Jewish temple as the most important duty of Judaism. Some even see the temple activists as heroes who stand up for religious freedom.
Also read this report about the temple movement: Red cow is the first step on the way to the Third Temple
While Glick wanted above all to ensure that Jews could pray alongside Muslims, some more extreme views include the demolition of Islamic sanctuaries in favor of the temple. One school of thought says that this must be done through divine intervention, others believe that God should be given a helping hand. In 1984, Yehuda Etzion was arrested for trying to blow up Al-Aksa Mosque.
5 What are the chances that this will get out of hand again, like in 2000?
In previous disturbances around the Temple Mount, the Israeli government has usually made it clear that the status quo around the mount is not under discussion. But with Netanyahu VI taking office at the end of December, there are fears that those in power may be leaning more towards escalation this time around. Netanyahu himself says he respects the agreements, but Ben-Gvir clearly intends to stir up religious tensions.
In the past, Palestinians regularly felt compelled to defend the Temple Mount by carrying out attacks on Israelis. If this happens again, it could prompt Ben-Gvir to crack down on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.