Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Sunday, which has caused controversy due to heightened tensions in annexed east Jerusalem. This visit comes three days after Ben-Gvir and tens of thousands of Jewish nationalists marched through the Old City and just over a week into a fragile Gaza ceasefire. The visit was described as provocative by the State Department spokesman of the United States, Matthew Miller, who called on all parties to respect the sanctity of the holy space.
Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and is administered by Jordan. Non-Muslims are permitted to visit the site, but not pray there. The compound is also the most sacred site for Jews, who pray below it at the Western Wall. Hamas, the militant group that rules the blockaded Gaza Strip, denounced Ben-Gvir’s last visit to the site in January and again slammed his action on Sunday.
Later on Sunday, Israel’s top politicians held a rare cabinet meeting in the tunnels beneath the Western Wall. Palestinians fear their use as a vast museum threatens the foundations of Al-Aqsa mosque. The Jordanian Waqf Islamic affairs council, which administers the mosque compound, described Ben-Gvir’s visit as a “blatant storming and desecration of the blessed Al-Aqsa mosque”. Tours of the site by Jewish nationalists have long been criticised by Palestinians and Arab nations, while Ben-Gvir’s visits have taken on added weight since he took office in December.
The timing of Sunday’s visit also holds significance, coming days after extremists marched through the Old City to celebrate east Jerusalem’s capture by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-Day War. Thursday’s event was marred by incidents of violence against Palestinians and journalists, while the United States condemned “the hateful chants such as ‘Death to Arabs’” during the rally. Ben-Gvir’s visit also follows a Cairo-brokered truce reached on May 13 between Israel and Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza, ending five days of cross-border fighting.