Palestinian backers and Israel at odds over holy site visit

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Palestinians and many Muslim and non-Muslim supporters sharply disagreed with Israel on Thursday at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting over the visit of an ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet minister to a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.

The Palestinians warned it could lead to another deadly uprising, while Israel dismissed it as “a trivial matter” and “non-event.”

The Palestinian U.N. ambassador, Riyad Mansour, said new Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler leader who draws inspiration from a racist rabbi, didn’t go to visit the site, “but to pursue his extremist view, to end the historic status quo” under which Jews have been allowed to visit but not pray there since Israel captured the area in the 1967 war.

Known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, Arabic for the Noble Sanctuary, the site is the holiest in Judaism, home to the ancient biblical temples. Today, it houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. The site has been the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces.

Calling Ben-Gvir “an extremist minister of an extremist state” who was convicted of incitement and is known for his “racist views,” Mansour said the Israeli minister is committed to allowing Jews to pray at al-Haram al-Sharif. He urged the Security Council and all countries to stop this from happening, and “to uphold international law and the historic status quo,” warning that “if they don’t, our Palestinian people will.”

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan, who also visited the Temple Mount as minister of public security in 2017, criticized the Security Council for holding the emergency meeting over Ben-Gvir’s 13-minute visit, saying it was non-violent and within the status quo and his right as a Jew.

Erdan told reporters that calling the meeting “is an insult to our intelligence” and “pathetic” and that the council should instead be meeting about the war in Ukraine or Iran’s killing of protesters.

“Israel has not harmed the status quo and has no plans to do so,” Erdan said. “The only side that is changing the status quo is the Palestinian Authority. Why? Because by turning the site into a battleground … the Palestinian Authority is making it clear that not only is Jewish prayer intolerable on the Temple Mount, but so is any Jewish presence.”

“This is pure anti-Semitism,” he added.

Khaled Khiare, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, briefed the council at the start of the meeting, saying that Ben-Gvir’s visit wasn’t accompanied or followed by violence. But, he said, “it is seen as particularly inflammatory,” given the minister’s “past advocacy for changes in the status quo.”

The visit sparked widespread condemnation in the region and internationally “as a provocation that risked sparking further bloodshed,” he said.

Khiare said that U.N. efforts to de-escalate the situation will continue and that “leaders on all sides have a responsibility to lower the flames and create the conditions for calm.”

In September 2000, Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, visited the Temple Mount, which helped spark clashes that led to a full-fledged Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada. The Security Council deplored Sharon’s visit, which it called a “provocation.”

Most recently, in April 2021, clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators in and around the site also fueled an 11-day war with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Mansour told the council that Palestinians “are running out of patience,” and said that Israel’s persistence “does not lead to surrender but to uprising.”

He urged all those committed to international law and peace to act now, and “not lament once the fire spreads beyond control.”

When Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount on Tuesday he described it as “the most important place for the Jewish people” and decried what he called “racist discrimination” against Jewish visits to the site.

With the Islamic shrine the Dome of the Rock in the background and waving his fingers at the camera, he said visits would continue. As for threats from Gaza’s Hamas militant group, Ben-Gvir, known for his anti-Arab rhetoric and provocative stunts, said in a video clip taken during the visit: “The Israeli government won’t surrender to a murderous organization, to a vile terrorist organization.”

All Security Council members expressed concern at his visit — and the potential fallout.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood underscored the firm support by President Joe Biden for “the historic status quo” at Jerusalem holy sites, especially the “Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount.” He added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is calling for all sides “to exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric.”

He said the United States, which is Israel’s closest ally, noted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s platform calling for preservation of the status quo, saying “we expect the government of Israel to follow through on that commitment.”

Wood stressed that the possibility of a two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be preserved, “and we must ensure all Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal measures of freedom, justice, security and prosperity.”

Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press