JERUSALEM – An ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet minister on Tuesday visited a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site for the first time since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new far-right government took office last week. The visit drew fierce condemnation from across the Muslim world and a strong rebuke from the United States.
The visit fueled fears of unrest as Palestinian militant groups threatened to act in response. On Tuesday evening, the Israeli military said Gaza militants tried to fire a rocket into southern Israel but the projectile fell short and hit in the Hamas-controlled territory.
Netanyahu attempted to play down the incident, saying it was in line with longstanding understandings at the disputed holy site. But the visit by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir unnerved both enemies and allies that have expressed strong misgivings about the far-right makeup of the new government.
Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler leader who draws inspiration from a racist rabbi, entered the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary flanked by a large contingent of police officers. His plans to visit, announced earlier in the week, had drawn threats from Gaza's Hamas militant group.
“The Israeli government won't surrender to a murderous organization, to a vile terrorist organization,” Ben-Gvir, known for his anti-Arab rhetoric and provocative stunts, said in a video clip taken during the visit.
Describing the Temple Mount as “the most important place for the Jewish people," he decried what he called “racist discrimination” against Jewish visits to the site. With the Dome of the Rock in the background and waving his fingers at the camera, he said the visits would continue.
The site is the holiest site in Judaism, home to the ancient biblical Temples. Today, it houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Since Israel captured the site in 1967, Jews have been allowed to visit but not pray there.
Ben-Gvir has long called for greater Jewish access to the holy site. Palestinians consider the mosque a national symbol and view such visits as provocative and as a potential precursor to Israel seizing control over the compound. Most rabbis forbid Jews from praying on the site, but there has been a growing movement in recent years of Jews who support worship there.
The site has been the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, most recently in April last year.
Although Tuesday's visit passed without incident, U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides said he "has been very clear in conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites. Actions that prevent that are unacceptable.”
The United Arab Emirates, which established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, “strongly condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard by an Israeli minister under the protection of Israeli forces.” It called on Israel to “halt serious and provocative violations taking place there.”
Bahrain, which also recognized Israel at the same time, did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Saudi Arabia, a powerful Arab country with which Netanyahu hopes to establish similar ties, condemned the Israeli minister's action, as did statements from Kuwait and Qatar. None of the three countries have official diplomatic ties with Israel.
Turkey, which only recently re-established full diplomatic ties with Israel, condemned what it said was “the provocative action” by Ben-Gvir. It urged Israel “to act responsibly,” saying such visits could "cause an escalation in the region.”
Israel's neighbor Jordan, which acts as custodian of the contested shrine, condemned Ben-Gvir's visit “in the strongest terms" and summoned Israel's ambassador to lodge a protest.
Egypt, another key Arab ally of Israel's, warned against “negative repercussions of such measures on security and stability in the occupied territories and the region, and on the future of the peace process.”
Tensions at the disputed compound have fueled past rounds of violence. A visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in September 2000 helped spark clashes that became the second Palestinian uprising. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators in and around the site fueled an 11-day war with Hamas in 2021.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said Ben-Gvir's visit was "a continuation of the Zionist’s occupation aggression on our sacred places and war on our Arab identity.”
“Our Palestinian people will continue defending their holy places and Al Aqsa Mosque," he said.
Lebanon's Hezbollah group, which fought Israel in a monthlong war in 2006, said the visit threatened to “blow up the region.”
Responding to the outcry, Netanyahu late Tuesday said Israel remains committed to “strictly maintaining the status quo” at the site. “The claim that a change has been made in the status quo is without foundation.”
Netanyahu returned to office last week for his sixth term as prime minister, leading the most religious, right-wing government in the country's history. Its goals include expanding West Bank settlements and annexing the occupied territory.
Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, with its holy sites to three monotheistic faiths, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state, with east Jerusalem as capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move unrecognized by most of the international community and considers the city its undivided, eternal capital.
The competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ben-Gvir is head of the ultranationalist religious Jewish Power faction and has a history of inflammatory remarks and actions against Palestinians. He was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group, but in his new job now commands Israel's police force.
A day earlier, opposition leader Yair Lapid, who until last week was Israel's prime minister, warned that Ben-Gvir’s intended visit 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.
Early on Tuesday, Palestinian officials said a 15-year-old boy was killed by Israeli army fire near the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. The Israeli military said its forces had shot at people throwing firebombs toward troops.
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Rome, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.