Israel's Ben-Gvir visits Al Aqsa mosque compound, Palestinians condemn move

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[1/5] Itamar Ben Gvir, a new minister of national security, attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022.Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

  • Ben-Gvir says 'Temple Mount is open to all'
  • Palestinian Hamas says it brings 'big clash' closer
  • Jordan says visit violates international law
  • Netanyahu vows to keep 'status quo' of holy sites

JERUSALEM, Jan 3 (Reuters) - Israel's new far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir briefly visited Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on Tuesday, a site also revered by Jews, prompting condemnation from Palestinians and neighbouring Jordan.

"The Temple Mount is open to all," Ben-Gvir said on Twitter, using the Jewish name for the site. Video footage showed him strolling at the periphery of the compound, surrounded by a heavy security detail and flanked by a fellow Orthodox Jew.

An Israeli official said Ben Gvir's 15-minute visit to Al Aqsa compound complied with a so-called status quo arrangement, dating back decades, that allows non-Muslims to visit on condition they do not pray. The visit passed without incident.

The rise of Ben-Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, to join a religious-nationalist coalition under re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deepened Palestinian anger about their long-failed efforts to secure a state.

His visit risks stoking tensions further after an upsurge in violence in the occupied West Bank in the past year.

Hours earlier, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager in a clash in nearby Bethlehem, medical officials and witnesses said. Israel's army said troops fired on Palestinians who threw improvised explosives, rocks and firebombs at them.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it "strongly condemns the storming of Al-Aqsa mosque by the extremist minister Ben-Gvir and views it as unprecedented provocation and a dangerous escalation of the conflict".

Ben-Gvir did not approach the mosque, which is a symbol for Palestinian nationalism and their bid for statehood, a goal that looks ever bleaker with Ben-Gvir and other far-right allies in office in Netanyahu's new government.

Jordan, the custodian of Al Aqsa and whose peace own deal with Israel is unpopular at home, also criticised the visit.

"Jordan condemns in the severest of terms the storming of the Aqsa mosque and violation of its sanctity," the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said, adding it violated international law and "the historic and legal status quo in Jerusalem".

CONTESTED SITE

A spokesman for Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that rejects coexistence with Israel, said of Ben-Gvir's visit: "A continuation of this behaviour will bring all parties closer to a big clash."

The Al Aqsa compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is Islam's third-holiest site. It is also Judaism's most sacred site, a vestige of two ancient temples of the faith.

On Tuesday, pious Jews fasted to commemorate a Babylonian siege on the first of those temples, in the 6th century BC.

Ben-Gvir's cabinet duties include overseeing Israeli police who are formally tasked with enforcing the ban on Jewish prayer at the compound. He once advocated ending that ban, but has been more non-committal on the matter since aligning with Netanyahu.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem its indivisible capital - a status not recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, where the compound is located, as capital of a future state also taking in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"If Hamas thinks that it can deter me with threats, it should understand that times have changed," Ben-Gvir said on Twitter. "There is a government in Jerusalem!"

Almog Cohen, another lawmaker from Ben-Gvir's Jewish Power party, told Israel's Kan radio that the party's "aspiration is - yes, God willing, for all religions to be able to pray on the Temple Mount".

But Netanyahu, now in his sixth term as premier, has pledged to preserve the "status quo" around holy sites.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ari Rabinovitch, and Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Edmund Blair

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