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Al-Aqsa: Israel's Ben Gvir tours mosque in 'aggressive intrusion'

Palestinians denounce the far-right minister for violating the sanctity of the holy site and normalising settler incursions
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir storms Al-Aqsa with a group of Israeli settlers (Screengrab)
By Lubna Masarwa in Jerusalem

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem on Thursday morning, sparking condemnation from Palestinians.

The far-right minister was accompanied by a group of Israeli ultranationalists and toured the site under heavy protection from police. 

"[This is] the most important place for the people of Israel," Ben Gvir told the cameras during the incursion. "We need to return and show our governance."

Al-Aqsa Mosque, which spans 14 hectares and includes the Dome of the Rock as well as the silver-domed al-Qibli prayer hall, is an Islamic site where unsolicited visits, prayers and rituals by non-Muslims are forbidden according to decades-long international agreements. 

The hill on which the mosque sits is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and is believed to be the site where two ancient Jewish temples once stood.

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The storming took place on Tisha B'Av, a holiday which commemorates the destruction of the two Jewish temples and the exile of Jewish people.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and a prominent preacher, warned that the storming was an attempt by Israeli authorities to further control the holy site. 

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"What happened today was an aggressive intrusion. We consider this to be a provocation towards Muslims," he told Middle East Eye.

"The occupation is trying to forcibly impose a new reality on Al-Aqsa and Ben Gvir's statements are proof of this, but we will not give up our legitimate rights," he added. 

According to Sabri, the storming of Al-Aqsa is just one example of previous events where far-right Israeli leaders and settlers have unlawfully entered the site.

"Despite this, we will not let them fulfil what they want to achieve, which is dividing up the holy site physically and historically."

Sabri also believes that the storming was a way for the Israeli government to divert attention from the ongoing judicial protests against it in Tel Aviv.

"The current right-wing government is heading towards escalation, and is carrying out these actions as a way to reduce the opposition it is facing and has been suffering from," he said.

On Wednesday evening, hundreds of Israeli ultranationalists marched through the Old City of Jerusalem to mark Tisha B'Av, forcing Muslims to close down their shops and restricting their movement.

Israeli forces blockaded the doorways into the holy site and beat people, including women, who were trying to enter to pray.

Muslim worshippers were also stopped from entering the holy site, with many raising concerns over the frequency of the raids of the site.

Journalists in the alleyways of the Old City were also stopped from doing their work, with videos shared online showing them being harassed and assaulted by Jewish worshippers.

Plans to divide Al-Aqsa

Palestinian journalist Juman Abu Arafeh said that Israeli stormings of Al-Aqsa are not a new occurrence. 

"This has been occurring on an almost monthly basis since 2013. Some Knesset members are even storming on an almost daily basis. On some occasions we have also had stewards of Al-Aqsa injured. One lady had her hand broken and others were detained," she told MEE.

In the last two decades, there has been an increase in the number of Israeli ultranationalists visiting and praying in Al-Aqsa under police protection without permission from Palestinians. 

In 2009, 5,658 settlers entered the mosque in such incursions. In 2019, the number rose to 30,000, according to some estimates. 

"What's new now is more ministers are storming Al-Aqsa which normalises it. Ben Gvir's storming of Al-Aqsa three times in the space of seven months sends a message to people that they are welcome to come and storm and that this place is for Jews," Abu Arafeh said.

'What's new now is more ministers are storming Al-Aqsa which normalises it'

- Juman Abu Arafeh, journalist

"The stormings on religious events is even more symbolic and is encouraging more settlers to come."

According to her, Israeli plans to divide Al-Aqsa are already underway as Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy site during Israeli incursions.

Last month, an Israeli lawmaker suggested a plan to divide Al-Aqsa Mosque between Jews and Muslims, sparking major concerns from Palestinians who have long-held fears of the holy site being split up.

"We had Muslim worshippers coming to pray at Al-Aqsa from long distances, as far as Qalqilya. Children were even not allowed to enter the mosque, they were all forced to wait in the narrow alleyways of the Old City until the storming was over," she explained. 

"The occupation forces try to appear fair by blocking settlers from entering during Muslim holidays such as Eid al-Adha, which already means it's being divided," she added. 

Abu Arafeh also says that the moves are especially seen as offensive and provocative during Jewish holidays and celebrations, where dancing and loud music is played on what is deemed a sacred site for Muslims. 

Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, previously raised concerns over plans to divide Al-Aqsa between Muslims and Jews. 

"Although the historical status quo stipulates that only Muslims can pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jewish settlers, accompanied by Israeli security forces, routinely storm the complex. Violations are documented by the Jordanian religious authorities who manage the site," he wrote in Middle East Eye. 


Hazem Kassem, a Hamas spokesperson, issued a statement calling Ben Gvir's raid "an escalation of a religious war the occupation is waging against Jerusalem and al-Aqsa".

"The Palestinian people will protect Al-Aqsa's identity as an Islamic mosque at any cost," he added.

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The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned the storming, saying that it serves as an example of how continued raids and aggression are an attempt to change the status quo. 

The Jordanian foreign ministry also condemned the storming in a statement. 

Sinan al-Majali, the ministries spokesperson, said that the storming of the holy site could escalate tensions and lead to a far bigger crisis. 

Warning against the "dangerous consequences of allowing extremists to storm the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque", he added that the incursion violates the sanctity of the holy site. 

"The extremists' storming is an example of an inflammatory and blatant move that is against the law and history. Israel has no sovereignty over occupied Palestine. The continued Israeli provocations and breaches of history and law could result in a new era of escalations and violence," the statement said.

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