Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem and declared Israel “in charge”, drawing condemnation from Palestinians after months of escalating tension and violence.
The comments during his early morning visit on May 21 to the compound came days after groups of Jewish youths scuffled with Palestinians and chanted racist slogans during the annual nationalist march through the Old City.
The event, held on “Jerusalem Day”, which marks the 1967 capture and annexation of East Jerusalem, a move considered illegal under international law, has led to violence in recent years, as far-right Israelis shout provocative slogans and insults, as well as physically attack Palestinians and even journalists.
“I’m happy to ascend the Temple Mount, the most important place for the people of Israel,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said during his visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as Al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews.
In 2021, tensions around Al-Aqsa were followed by an 11-day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which controls the Strip, has repeatedly warned that it would react to what it sees as Jewish incursions on the site, which stands in Jordanian custodianship under a long-standing “status quo” arrangement to contain tensions.
“All the threats from Hamas will not help; we are in charge here in Jerusalem and all of the land of Israel,” said Mr. Ben-Gvir, who has repeatedly visited the compound.
For Jews, Temple Mount is the holiest place, where the biblical King Solomon built the first Temple 3,000 years ago and where the Romans razed a second Temple. Today, the hillside site is the third holiest in Islam, holding Al-Aqsa mosque with the Dome of the Rock, believed to be where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven.
Under the status quo arrangements, non-Muslims may visit the site in the heart of the Old City but are not allowed to pray. However, Jewish visitors have been increasingly defying the ban, more or less openly.
Palestinians consider defiance of the ban on prayer as a provocation and fear that Israel intends to take over the site.
The increased number of ultranationalist Jews entering the compound, and the frequent storming of the site by Israeli security forces, including inside the prayer hall of Al-Aqsa Mosque, has increased Palestinian anger.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Mr. Ben-Gvir’s “incursion at an early hour, like thieves, into the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyards will not change the reality and will not impose Israeli sovereignty over it”.
A Hamas spokesman said Israel would bear the consequences for Mr. Ben-Gvir’s “savage assault” on the mosque, and it called on Palestinians to step up their visits and “stand as a rampart in the face of all attempts to defile it and make it Jewish.”
Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, which includes Al-Aqsa and the adjacent Western Wall, a sacred place of prayer for Jews, during the 1967 Middle Eastern war.
Israel has since annexed East Jerusalem, in a move not recognised by the international community, and regards the entire city as its eternal and undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
In a statement on May 21, the United States said it was concerned by Mr. Ben-Gvir’s “provocative visit and accompanying inflammatory rhetoric”. It reaffirmed U.S. support for the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.
“This holy space should not be used for political purposes, and we call on all parties to respect its sanctity,” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said in the statement.