A visit by the ultranationalist Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir to a Jerusalem site that has long been a source of interreligious friction has triggered widespread condemnation among Palestinian factions but also in the wider Arab world amid concerns that it could spark wider tensions.
The compound, known as Temple Mount to Jews and Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, to Muslims, is Judaism’s most sacred site and Islam’s third-holiest after Mecca and Medina. For many Muslims around the world, a visit by Ben-Gvir is seen as a provocation.
The vast plaza overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is an important holy site for Christians as well. Until its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70, the Second Jewish Temple was believed to have been located there. For Muslims, Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven is associated with the sacred site.
According to Israeli media reports, Ben-Gvir had reportedly informed the police in recent days of his intention to visit the site on January 3, a day on which some observant Jews fast to commemorate the events that led to the destruction of the First Temple.
Concerns about erosion of religious status quo
Ben-Gvir, who has visited the area previously as a member of the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, is known to be an advocate for Jewish prayer at the compound and wants to change the long-standing status quo of the sacred site.
Under long-standing arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit the place where the temples once stood, but they are not allowed to pray there. The so-called status quo is aimed at maintaining rules and mutual respect among the religious communities, with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan holding custodianship that is administered through the Waqf, an Islamic religious authority.
In recent years, however, far-right Jewish “Temple Mount activists” have encouraged more visits to the area. Echoing the sentiments of these activists, Ben-Gvir has called the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount “discriminatory.”
As recently as last week, in an interview with the US television network CNN, Jordan’s King Abdullah expressed concern about those in Israel trying to push for changes to his country’s custodianship of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. “If people want to get into conflict with us, we are quite prepared,” King Abdullah II said, adding that “I always like to believe: Let’s look at the glass half-full; we have certain red lines. And if people want to push those red lines, then we will deal with that.”
In the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Jerusalem’s Old City and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) from Jordan, alongside the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians want to see those territories becoming part of their future, independent state. But Israel annexed East Jerusalem and considers the city as its undivided capital, a move unrecognized by most of the international community.
“Events of 1967 are key to understand what happens here today,” says Daniel (Danny) Seidemann, founder of the Israeli non-governmental organisation Terrestrial Jerusalem, which advocates for a solution to the Jerusalem question in line with the concept of a two-state solution. In recent decades, Seidemann says, the sacred site has become a place that could “ignite the conflict,” as the status quo has gradually deteriorated.
The visit by Ben-Gvir, whom many Palestinians see as a symbol of Israeli occupation policies and anti-Arab incitement, has the potential to further destabilise the situation. As minister for national security, he will also have oversight over the police that set the day-to-day policies in the area.
“We saw it coming in the first half of 2021, when violations of the sacred space on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif alongside displacement in Sheikh Jarrah [an East Jerusalem neighbourhood] triggered a round of violence between Israel and Gaza that was the detonator. And tensions have remained high ever since,” said Seidemann.
Observers have warned that any major changes to the status quo could trigger massive protests by Muslims across the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement on January 3 saying that he “is strictly committed to maintain the status quo, without any changes” on the holy site. A clause in the coalition deal stipulates that the status quo with regard to the holy places will be preserved.
“I am not saying that this will bring about violence, but there is a 30% to 50% chance that it will, and no responsible government will take the chance of an outbreak of violence as significant as that,” Seidemann says. “And the international community cannot allow to turn a blind eye to this. We are watching a potential train wreck in slow motion.”