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What is the Temple Mount and why did Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit stir up tension?

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Earlier this week, Israel’s new far-right National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, made exactly the kind of move critics of the new government feared: a visit to a sensitive Jerusalem holy site revered by Jews and Muslims, where even the slightest perceived change in the status quo could cause tensions that have already reached a fever pitch.

Ben Gvir’s visit to the ancient religious complex, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, was one of his first acts in office and the first such visit since years by a senior Israeli official.

In a video released by Reuters, Ben Gvir, striding through the security-flanked compound, looks into a camera and summons a Jewish stake into the site. “We are not giving in. We don’t surrender. We don’t blink,” he says.

Israel’s new far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir briefly visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on January 3. (Video: Reuters)

A Jewish nationalist provocateur with a penchant for stirring up media storms, Ben Gvir took up his new post last week in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Palestinian groups and Arab nations called his visit to the site an intentional provocation, raising the possibility of further unrest.

During an emergency session of the UN Security Council on Thursday afternoon, diplomats from several countries, including the United States, raised concerns about the potential for violence and called for de-escalation. .

“Those who are committed to international law and peace must act now, not lament once the fire has spread out of control,” said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, citing “the sensitivity of this holy place for billions of people in all corners of the globe.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan mocked the emergency session in his remarks, saying he was “delighted” when he heard the Security Council was planning to meet on “such a trivial matter” because this clearly meant that the United Nations had “achieved world peace overnight”.

Here’s what you need to know about the site.

What is the religious significance of the site?

Green line

(under 1949

armistice

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Sources: Ir Amim, B’Tselem, satellite imagery via Planet

What is the Temple Mount and why did Itamar Ben Gvir's visit stir up tension?

Green line

(under 1949

armistice

OK)

Sources: Ir Amim, B’Tselem, satellite imagery via Planet

What is the Temple Mount and why did Itamar Ben Gvir's visit stir up tension?

Green line

(under 1949

armistice

OK)

Sources: Ir Amim, B’Tselem, satellite imagery via Planet

The complex has religious significance for Muslims, Jews and Christians.

It is the holiest site in Judaism. The historic origins of the site are disputed among archaeologists, but in Jewish tradition a religious structure known as the First Temple was built on the hill during the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC The temple, around which the he ancient Jewish faith was centered, and the one that followed it was destroyed when the invading empires sacked Jerusalem.

“For Jews, it is the holiest place in Jewish history and in fact symbolizes the clearest contact between modern Israel and ancient Israel,” said Amichai Cohen, senior researcher at the Institute. Israeli democracy.

In Jewish and Muslim traditions it is known as the place where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son. The Jews, by custom, pray facing Jerusalem, and in particular the Temple Mount. The Western Wall, a retaining wall outside the al-Aqsa compound, has long been revered as the focal point of Jewish prayer.

For Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary is the third holiest site, after the mosques of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Al-Aqsa is believed to be the place from where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after taking a miraculous overnight journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The mosque was built on the southern part of the square at the beginning of the 8th century AD. Across the courtyard is the Dome of the Rock, an ornate Islamic shrine, with a golden dome visible across much of the city.

Who is responsible for the complex?

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 and then declared all of Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital – a decision not recognized by most of the international community. Since 1967, a religious trust funded and supervised by Jordan has managed the al-Aqsa compound, an arrangement formalized in a 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.

Israel has security authority over the site and maintains a police presence. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit but are forbidden to pray there.

Why is it considered a conflict flashpoint?

The site is at the heart of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians for control of Jerusalem. The city’s status proved a sticking point in efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict and al-Aqsa became a symbol of the Palestinian quest for self-determination.

The mosque is “the most important religious site for Muslims in Palestine and is absolutely central to Palestinian identity”, said Khaled Elgindy, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the Middle East Institute.

Violations of the status quo have been interpreted by many Palestinians as acts of aggression. A visit by then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the site in 2000 helped spark the second Intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada – a 4½-year-old Palestinian uprising during which more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed.

In recent years, Israel’s installation of metal detectors in the compound provoked a violent backlash in 2017. And members of an emboldened Israeli religious nationalist movement have increasingly ventured into the square, often joining and encouraged by Ben Gvir.

Jordan filed a formal complaint with Israel in April 2021 about large groups of Jewish visitors violating the status quo. The following month, Ben Gvir’s support for settlers in an East Jerusalem neighborhood helped catalyze an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza.

“Every time a minister or a member of the Knesset or a member of an extremist settler group steps into the al-Aqsa compound, they erode the status quo,” Elgindy said.

Rights groups also say Israeli security forces are quick to storm the site and fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

Are Jews divided on whether to pray there?

A “very large majority” of religious and more secular Jewish Israelis refrain from going to the Temple Mount, Cohen said. Given how easily tensions can escalate, many believe Jews should avoid the area so as not to provoke the Palestinians and stoke a new wave of violence.

But there are religious reasons why some Jews think it’s important to stay away from the Temple Mount. Many Orthodox leaders say Jews should not walk on the “Holy of Holies,” which is part of the site of historic Jewish temples. Jews from all over the world visit and pray at the adjacent Western Wall.

Ben Gvir became the leader of Israel’s far-right religious nationalist movement, which has grown in popularity in recent years and pushed for a greater Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office this week reaffirmed its determination to maintain the status quo. But Ben Gvir, his ally in government, has long advocated changing the arrangement. Known for his Jewish supremacist views, he was found guilty of inciting racism against Arabs and supporting a terrorist group.

For Ben Gvir, who has built his career making inflammatory statements intended to provoke Palestinians, it is politically expedient to break with the norm, Cohen said.

“Ben Gvir is the politician who has won the most by challenging the existing policy on the Temple Mount,” Cohen said.

Now he is no longer just a populist agitator, but a cabinet minister with an expanded suite of powers over Israel’s security forces. The trip to the Temple Mount early in his tenure was likely intended to send a message “reminding Palestinians who’s boss” and possibly sparking unrest that would give him “pretext to suppress”, Elgindy said.

Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

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