Israel’s new national security minister made a surprise visit to a flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem on Tuesday, less than a week after the new far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed office.
Itamar Ben-Gvir arrived at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, just after dawn under heavy Israeli security protection. His tour of the compound lasted approximately 15 minutes and passed without incident, according to Israeli authorities.
Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician convicted of anti-Arab incitement in 2007, was appointed national security minister in Netanyahu’s new coalition government, with expanded powers over the Israel police. He has long called for Jewish prayer at al-Aqsa.
The site is historically a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, fought an 11-day war with Israel in 2021 after weeks of escalating clashes at al-Aqsa.
Five years of violence and bloodshed, known as the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted after an inflammatory visit to the site in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, then-Israeli opposition leader.
Tuesday’s visit comes as tensions have mounted once again between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, with the past year the deadliest for Palestinians in the territory since the end of the second intifada, and the most lethal for Israelis in at least six years, according to Palestinian human rights organisations and the Israeli military.
Ben-Gvir last visited the site in October in his capacity as an MP, just before the November 1 election that returned Netanyahu to power at the head of a coalition government considered the most rightwing in Israel’s history. No Israeli minister had ascended to Jerusalem’s holiest site in about five years, analysts said.
After Tuesday’s visit, Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter: “The Israeli government of which I am a member will not surrender to a vile murdering organisation . . . if Hamas thinks that if it threatens me it will deter me, let them understand that times have changed.”
The Palestinian Authority foreign ministry called the visit “an unprecedented provocation” while a Hamas spokesman said it was “a continuation of the Israeli occupation’s aggression against the holy sites and its war on its Arab identity . . . Al-Aqsa mosque was and will remain Palestinian, Arab and Islamic, and no fascist force or person can change this fact.”
Hamas has so far refrained from explicitly threatening to respond with rocket fire on Israel. The Israeli military said no special deployments, such as increased air defence cover, had taken place.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s former prime minister and current opposition leader, on Monday called Ben-Gvir’s planned visit a “deliberate provocation that will put lives in danger and cost lives” and demanded that Netanyahu stop him from going. Ben-Gvir had reportedly delayed plans to visit this week after holding a meeting with Netanyahu late on Monday, only to move ahead the following day.
Arab states, in particular Jordan, which holds special custodianship at the holy site, had warned the new Israeli government against taking any steps perceived as altering the “status quo” arrangements at al-Aqsa.
According to longstanding arrangements at the site, Jewish worshippers are allowed to visit the compound but not pray, although ultranationalist groups in recent years have stretched the meaning of “visit” to its breaking point, walking through with police escorts while chanting incantations.
“Jordan condemns in the severest of terms the storming of the Aqsa mosque and violating its sanctity,” its foreign ministry said on Tuesday.
One MP from Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party told Israeli media: “What we did today was a demonstration of sovereignty, a demonstration of strength.”