Not even a week after Israel’s far right government was sworn into office, one of its leading ministers revealed the tensions that face it.
New national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir entered the compound of the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Palestinian city Jerusalem on Tuesday. It was a calculated statement of intent to his supporters, who want to push Palestinians out of the city entirely.
The visit hasn’t so far provoked the “explosive” resistance that Palestinian group Hamas reportedly warned of. But it did anger some of Israel’s closest allies, and some top Israeli politicians.
Ben-Gvir openly champions violence to seize all Palestinian land permanently, segregate Arabs and deny them political rights. He was previously considered too extreme even for the racist politics of Israel’s apartheid state.
But prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu brought him, as a leader of the far right Religious Zionism group, into his new coalition government. Netanyahu hoped this would overcome Israel’s long-running political crisis, at the centre of which is how to manage the occupation of Palestine.
As soon as it was sworn in last week, Israel’s new government began demonstrating that it would live up to its supporters’ hopes. It has already announced plans to force more than 1,000 Palestinians from their homes in the Masafer Yatta area of the West Bank.
Palestinians have lived there long before Israel invaded and occupied it in 1967. But since invading, Israel has surrounded them with settlements and declared the land a closed “firing zone” to be used for military training.
Now it threatens to clear out and demolish their villages. That’s an echo of the methods of ethnic cleansing that Israeli forces used against Palestinians when the state was created in 1948.
Then on Tuesday morning, Ben-Gvir entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. It was a deliberate insult to Palestinians, and a nod to Israeli settler activists who want to demolish the mosque. They storm the compound to pray there.
As one of Islam’s most holy sites, the mosque is a central part of life for many Palestinians, and symbolic of their right to live, worship, and exist in their own city. Changes to its status or new restrictions forced on it by Israel—as part of a systematic attempt to force Palestinians out—have provoked fierce resistance.
Israeli cops’ attacks on worshippers at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan were one of the main sparks of a mass Palestinian revolt in 2021. And when then prime minister Ariel Sharon entered the site in 2000, it triggered what became known as the Second Intifada, or uprising.
Israel’s allies, led by the US, fear that sort of revolt again—and have warned its new government. The US government’s press secretary said, “The US stands firmly and we have been very clear for the preservation of the status quo with respect to holy sites in Jerusalem. Any unilateral action that jeopardises the status quo is unacceptable.”
The UAE, an Arab state that only recently declared formal ties with Israel, called on it to stop “dangerous and provocative violations” at Al-Aqsa. Netanyahu’s planned visit to the UAE has now been postponed.
And Saudi Arabia, which Israel wants to bring into open cooperation, said it condemned “the provocative action of an Israeli official who stormed the courtyard of al-Aqsa mosque.”
Former Israeli prime minister and now opposition leader Yair Lapid, hoping to side with the US, also warned that “people will die” if Ben-Gvir’s visit went ahead. And Israeli Orthodox Jewish newspaper Yated Neeman—linked to a party in Netanyahu’s government—carried a front page editorial condemning the “unnecessary and dangerous provocation.”
None of them care about Palestinians’ lives or freedom. The US arms and funds Israel as a central pillar of its military dominance in the Middle East. And Saudi Arabia and the UAE—also allies of the US—want to join with Israel against their shared rival Iran.
But they all fear that a Palestinian revolt—and the deeply-held support for Palestinians in every Arab country—could challenge their rule.
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