The extreme-right Israeli firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir has visited Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound for the first time since becoming a minister, his spokesperson has said, angering Palestinians who see the move as a provocation.
“Our government will not surrender to the threats of Hamas,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement, after the Palestinian militant group warned such a move was a “red line”.
Ben-Gvir’s visit on Tuesday came days after he took office as national security minister, a position that gives him powers over the police.
Al-Aqsa mosque is the third-holiest place in Islam and the most sacred site to Jews, who refer to the compound as the Temple Mount.
“The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel, and we maintain the freedom of movement for Muslims and Christians, but Jews will also go up to the mount, and those who make threats must be dealt with – with an iron hand,” Ben-Gvir said.
Lying within Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, the compound is administered by the Waqf Islamic affairs council, with Israeli forces operating there and controlling access. Ben-Gvir has lobbied to overhaul management of the site to allow Jewish prayer there, a move opposed by mainstream rabbinical authorities.
Waqf guards told AFP that Ben-Gvir was accompanied by units of the Israeli security forces while a drone hovered above the holy site. After he left the compound on Tuesday morning, visitors arrived at the plaza and the situation remained quiet.
Ben-Gvir has visited al-Aqsa numerous times since entering parliament in April 2021, but his presence there as a senior minister carries far greater weight. A controversial visit in 2000 by the then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, was one of the main triggers for the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted until 2005.
The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit as an “unprecedented provocation and a serious threat to the arena of conflict”.
Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official, last week warned such a step would be “a big red line and it will lead to an explosion”.
Following Ben-Gvir’s visit, the Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem deemed it a “crime” and vowed the site “will remain Palestinian, Arab, Islamic”.
Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and in May 2021 an 11-day war broke out in the territory between Palestinian militants and Israel, after violence at al-Aqsa mosque.
Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israeli police officers were wounded in the preceding clashes across East Jerusalem, initially sparked by restrictions on Palestinians gathering and possible evictions of residents. During this period, Ben-Gvir rallied his supporters at Israeli settler homes in East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 six-day war.
For years seen as a fringe figure, the Jewish Power leader entered mainstream politics with the backing of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Ben-Gvir has advocated for Arab-Israelis deemed disloyal to the state to be expelled and for the annexation of the occupied West Bank.
Until a few years ago he had a portrait in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at a Hebron mosque in 1994. He launched his ministerial career on 29 December as part of Israel’s most rightwing government in history, led by Netanyahu.