National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minelet Har Habayit/timesofisrael.com)

Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir briefly visited the compound that houses the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Tuesday, a move condemned by Palestinians as provocative and despite warnings it could lead to violence.

“The Temple Mount is open to all,” Ben-Gvir said on Twitter, using the Jewish name for the site. An accompanying photograph showed him strolling at the periphery of the compound, surrounded by a clutch of bodyguards and flanked by a fellow Orthodox Jew.

An Israeli official said the quarter-hour visit took place in accordance with a so-called status quo arrangement, dating back decades, that allows non-Muslims to visit on condition they do not pray. It passed without incident, the official said.

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 Palestinians’ anger over the long frustrations of their goal of statehood.

In fresh violence in nearby Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager during a clash, medical officials and witnesses said. There was no immediate comment from the army.

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”.

A spokesman for Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that rejects coexistence with Israel, said Al-Aqsa “will remain Palestinian, Arab and Islamic … and no fascist can change this fact”.

There was no indication that Ben-Gvir approached the mosque, however. Once an advocate of ending the ban on Jewish prayer at the compound, he has, since taking office, spoken in a more non-committal way about a need to enforce “non-discrimination” there.

“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!”

On Monday, a Jewish Power lawmaker, Almog Cohen, 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.

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.

Located in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a 1967 war, the compound further serves as a focus of Palestinian hopes of founding a state in those territories.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem its indivisible capital – a status not recognised internationally.

SOURCE: REUTERS

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