Far-right minister says Israel ‘in charge’ on visit to Jerusalem holy site

Comments by Itamar Ben-Gvir draw condemnation from Palestinians amid escalating tensions

Israel’s far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, visited a site in Jerusalem holy to both Muslims and Jews and declared Israel was “in charge”, drawing condemnation from Palestinians after months of escalating tension and violence.

The early morning visit to the site, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque, also drew denunciations from two of Israel’s Arab peace partners, Jordan and Egypt.

It came days after groups of Jewish youths clashed with Palestinians and chanted racist slogans during a nationalist march through the Old City.

“I am glad to ascend the Temple Mount, the most important place for the nation of Israel,” Ben-Gvir said during his visit to the compound, the most sensitive point between Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem and the scene of repeated confrontations. Police are doing wonderful work here and again giving a reminder of who the master of the house is in Jerusalem. All of Hamas’s threats won’t help. We are the masters of Jerusalem and all of the land of Israel.”

According to arrangements in place since Israel occupied the site along with the rest of East Jerusalem during the 1967 war, Jews are allowed to visit but only Muslims can pray there. To Jews, it is revered as the site of the ancient temples, while Muslims consider it as the place from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

In recent years, Jewish visits and calls for Jewish prayer have increased, fuelling Muslim fears of a takeover. At the same time, police have grown increasingly lax in enforcing the ban on Jewish worship and often have not stopped Jews from praying in the eastern corner of the compound. They do this by reading from their mobile phones, rather than prayer books – which is what Ben-Gvir did on Sunday. The moment was captured on video.

Ben-Gvir, who was elected last November promising to push for Jewish prayer at the site, is considered by many to be the most extremist Israeli politician and has a long history of Arab baiting. For many years, he displayed prominently in his home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli gunman who killed 29 Palestinians during mosque prayers in Hebron in 1994.

Ben-Gvir also called for more funding to enable a ministry controlled by his Jewish Power party to increase the number of Jews in parts of Israel with large Arab populations, the Negev and the Galilee. “We have to act there, we have to be the masters also of the Negev and the Galilee,” he said.

Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the PLO executive committee, said the visit offended Muslims worldwide and predicted it could destabilise the region by boosting Islamic fundamentalists.

Majdalani, who is also Palestinian minister of social development, called Ben-Gvir’s visit “a provocative expression by the Israeli government as a whole, not just an individual expression by Ben-Gvir. It is official policy to harm the feelings of Muslims worldwide, particularly Palestinians. We warn that if this continues, then it changes the situation from a political conflict to a religious one that cannot be controlled. The danger of this to the region cannot be overestimated.”

Jordan, which was granted a special role atIslamic sites in Jerusalem in its 1994 peace treaty with Israel was fierce in its condemnation. “The storming of al-Aqsa mosque and the violation of its sanctity by an Israeli cabinet minister are condemned and provocative acts,” said the ministry of foreign and expatriate affairs spokesperson Sinan Majali. “They represent a blatant violation of international law, as well as the historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem and its holy sites.”

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.

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