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Peace and Conflict

Netanyahu overrules Ben Gvir on Temple Mount restrictions | Update 6th March 2024

Netanyahu overrules Ben Gvir on Temple Mount restrictions via BICom

What’s happened: Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that there will be no new restrictions on the access to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslim Arab citizens of Israel during Ramadan.

  • The decision was made at a meeting chaired by the prime minister and attended by Defence Minister Gallant, Foreign Minister Katz, war cabinet Minister Eisenkot, National Security Minister Ben Gvir, and representatives of all security agencies.
  • In line with the model of previous years, numbers will be determined purely by the site’s capacity and the police and security services’ ability to maintain calm and order.
  • West Bank Palestinians will also be permitted to visit, but in reduced numbers from previous years. They will be subject to age restrictions and Shin Bet assessment.
  • The situation will be reassessed on a weekly basis. If the first few weeks of the holy month proceed peacefully, numbers may even be increased in subsequent weeks.
  • Netanyahu said “Israel’s policy was and always will be to maintain freedom of worship for all faiths. That is how we acted during Ramadan, of course, and it is how we will act now as well. We will do everything to maintain freedom of worship on the Temple Mount while aptly providing for security and safety needs and enabling the Muslim public to celebrate the holiday.”
  • United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas welcomed the policy, saying: “I congratulate the prime minister for the decision to permit freedom of worship to Muslims at al-Aqsa Mosque. I call on the Arab public to exercise its right and hold prayers during this holy month, while obeying the law and maintaining public order.”
  • Ben Gvir responded angrily to the decision, saying that “to allow visits to the Temple Mount during Ramadan similar to past years, in contrast to my position and the police’s position, shows that Netanyahu and the small cabinet think that nothing happened on October 7. This decision endangers Israel’s citizens and could give Hamas a victory picture.”

Context: In reaching the decision, Netanyahu has sided with the military and security establishments over Ben Gvir, who had demanded unprecedented restrictions on Arab citizens of Israel’s visitation rights.

  • The two attempted to craft a joint statement after the decision was reached, but were unable to agree on a text.
  • When reports of Ben Gvir’s proposed policy surfaced last month, initial suggestions were that Netanyahu was inclined to side with the national security minister, though the attorney general warned that blanket bans on Israel’s Muslim citizens was likely illegal.
  • Israeli Police Commissioner Shabtai, while acknowledging the security challenges, ultimately sided with the military and intelligence establishments over Ben Gvir. In response to Netanyahu’s decision, the force said that the 50,000-60,000 likely visitors to the Temple Mount in the first weeks were manageable, if “borderline”.
  • Restrictions on West Bank residents on the grounds of age have been implemented in previous years, with younger men more likely to incite violence and therefore generally prevented from entering the compound. In more peaceful times, the Jerusalem municipality often laid on buses to help West Bank Palestinians travel to the Temple Mount. This is highly unlikely to be repeated this year.
  • Ramadan is always a time of increased tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The war in Gaza, coupled with Hamas’s persistent attempts to incite around the issue of the Temple Mount, have made this year a particular challenge for security, police, and military officials.
  • Gallant recently sent a document to top security officials in which he warned about the knock-on effect of a security flare-up in Jerusalem and the West Bank during Ramadan on the war in Gaza. “An escalation will make it difficult for us to concentrate efforts and carry out the IDF’s tasks to achieve the war’s objectives because of the need to divert troops to Judea and Samaria and other sectors,” he said.
  • Gallant’s document recommended following the security establishment’s line on entry to the Temple Mount and addressed "irresponsible statements" by Israeli political figures, a likely reference to Ben Gvir.
  • Hamas has repeatedly tried to link its campaign of violence and terror to al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site. It named its October 7th operation “al-Aqsa Flood”, and has traditionally spread inciting disinformation over Israeli actions there.
  • Hamas Politburo Chair, Ismail Haniyeh, called last week for Muslims to march on Al Aqsa on the first night of Ramadan. “The siege of Al-Aqsa and the siege of Gaza are one and the same,” he said in a televised speech in Beirut.
  • With the lead-up to Ramadan coinciding with Hamas’s stalling and inflexibility on the terms of a hostage/ceasefire deal, Israeli officials estimate that Hamas’s Gazan leader Yahya Sinwar – seemingly out of contact with the rest of Hamas’s leadership – prefers to delay a deal and to instead seek to exploit tensions during the holy month to spark a regional conflagration.
  • From October 7th onwards, Hamas has sought to incite Arab citizens of Israel to join the fight against Israel. Not only has this failed to materialise, but polls have shown Arab citizens rejecting Hamas en masse, and reporting record levels of identification with the Israeli state.

Looking ahead: Ramadan begins on Sunday night. The police will now prepare for a major operation, with thousands of officers deployed on the Temple Mount, in the alleyways leading to it, across the Old City and East Jerusalem, as well as at the entrances to the city.

  • Close attention will be paid to social media, with police and intelligence officers scanning channels for signs of fake news or disinformation designed to increase tensions.

via BICom