National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the Temple Mount early Tuesday morning, his first trip to the holy site since taking office last week. The visit came hours after reports that Ben Gvir had agreed to postpone the visit after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and despite opposition condemnation and threats from Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group.
“Our government will not bow to Hamas’ threats,” Ben Gvir said at the end of his visit, which reportedly lasted about 15 minutes and passed without immediate incident.
“The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel. We maintain freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians, but Jews also go to the site and those who make threats must be treated with an iron fist,” he said.
The visit by Ben Gvir, whose ministry is in charge of police, came after an assessment with security and police officials, his office said in a statement.
Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Ben Gvir later on Monday met with Ronen Bar, the head of Shin Bet, as well as Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and the Jerusalem District Commander, who “found that there was no obstacle to the visit,” it said it in the statement.
Get the daily Times of Israel by email and never miss our headlines again
By registering you agree to the terms
“Security officials involved in assessing the situation believed that surrender in the face of threats would be a reward for terror and would legitimize action against Israel,” the statement said. There was no comment on the matter from the police or the Shin Bet.
Netanyahu on Monday discussed with Ben Gvir his stated intention to visit the site. The content of the conversation was not published. A statement issued by Ben Gvir’s office after their talks said he would visit the Temple Mount “in the coming weeks.”
According to Hebrew media reports, the two had agreed that Ben Gvir would stop visiting the seat of the fire for the time being. However, the Likud insisted that was not the case. Rather, after discussions with security officials, Netanyahu avoided recommending that the far-right minister refrain from visiting.
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with party leader Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben Gvir during a vote at the assembly hall of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry condemned Tuesday’s visit, calling it an “unprecedented provocation”.
“Netanyahu bears responsibility for this attack on Al-Aqsa,” the PA said in a statement.
The Temple Mount is considered by Jews to be the historic site of the two Jewish temples, making it the holiest site in Judaism. It is also the third holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or Noble Sanctuary.
Provocations and violence at the site have often spread into larger wildfires.
Ben Gvir’s visit on Tuesday took place on Tevet 10, a Jewish fast day to mourn the events that led to the destruction of the Temple.
Labor MP Gilad Kariv said Ben Gvir’s decision showed he prioritized “promoting an extreme nationalist worldview” over the security of Israeli citizens.
“Especially on the fast day of Tevet 10, it is important to remember that the connection between political extremism, power frenzy and government corruption led to the destruction of the temple,” Kariv said in a statement. “Standing up against these phenomena is essential to guarantee Israel’s future.”
Ben Gvir, who has been to the Temple Mount several times in the past, announced on Sunday his intention to visit the site for the first time as a minister.
In response, Hamas had warned Israel that Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount would be “a detonator” and vowed resistance.
Haaretz daily reported on Monday that diplomats from several unnamed Arab states have contacted Jerusalem to express concerns about Ben Gvir’s planned visit, saying such moves could worsen the security situation in Jerusalem, in the West Bank and the wider region.
Far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir was seen at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 31, 2022 after visiting the Temple Mount. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
They noted that Passover and Ramadan will again coincide this year and that “extreme statements and actions by senior officials in the new government, along with feelings of desperation on the Palestinian side, could take their toll,” a source familiar with the matter to the newspaper.
Ben Gvir’s announcement of his intended visit drew criticism from the opposition, with opposition leader Yair Lapid warning that such a visit would “cost lives” and urging Netanyahu to block the visit.
Ben Gvir is the leader of one of the three far-right parties in Netanyahu’s nascent coalition.
Long accused of being a provocateur, the new national security minister has made several trips to the Temple Mount as an activist and member of the Knesset, and has also led controversial nationalist marches through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. On several occasions, he set up an ad hoc office in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, which has also been at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions and fomenting unrest.
His last visit to the Temple Mount was about three months ago, before the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.
Despite Ben Gvir’s rhetoric on the issue ahead of the election, he agreed to maintain the status quo at holy sites, including the Temple Mount, in coalition agreements reached with Netanyahu before the government was sworn in.
Ben Gvir has long been a proponent of formally changing the status quo of the Temple Mount, where Muslims can pray and enter with few restrictions and Jews can only visit through a single gate and walk along a set route during limited time slots, closely escorted by police . Jews are not allowed to pray on the premises, although in recent years police have increasingly observed police allowing silent prayer.
Israeli security forces escort a group of religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 31, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
Palestinians and most of the international community vehemently oppose any change to the current situation, although most Palestinians also object to any Israeli-Jewish presence at the compound, including police officers tasked with maintaining security.
Netanyahu has tried to reassure Israel’s allies that he will not allow any changes, and he has included a clause in all his coalition deals stating that the status quo “regarding the holy places” will be maintained.
But critics point to what they say was the gradual erosion of the policy, with Jewish pilgrims often seen praying quietly at the site in recent years while Israeli police looked on.