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What is the Temple Mount, and why did Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit stoke tension?

A worshiper walks outside the Dome of the Rock — on what is known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims — in the Old City of Jerusalem in August 2021. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Israel’s newly appointed far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, made just the sort of move earlier this week that critics of the incoming government had feared: a visit to a sensitive Jerusalem holy site revered by both Jews and Muslims, where even the slightest perceived change to the status quo could provoke tensions that have already come to a boil.

Ben Gvir’s tone-setting tour of the ancient religious compound, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, was one of his first actions in office, and the first such visit in years by a top Israeli official.

In a video published by Reuters, Ben Gvir, striding across the compound flanked by security, looks into a camera and invokes a Jewish stake in the site. “We don’t give in. We don’t surrender. We don’t blink,” he says.

Israel's new far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir briefly visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on Jan. 3. (Video: Reuters)

A Jewish nationalist provocateur with a penchant for igniting media firestorms, Ben Gvir took up his new post last week as part of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Palestinian groups and Arab nations called his visit to the site an intentional provocation, raising the potential for further unrest.

At an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday afternoon, diplomats from several countries, including the United States, raised concerns about the potential for violence and called for de-escalation.

“Those committed to international law and peace must act now, not lament once the fire spreads beyond control,” Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, told the council, citing “the sensitivity of this holy site for billions of people in all corners of the globe.”

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan mocked the emergency session in his remarks, saying he was “overjoyed” when he heard the Security Council planned to meet over “such a trivial matter” because it clearly meant that the United Nations had “achieved world peace overnight.”

Here’s what to know about the site.

What is the religious significance of the site?

LEB.

SYRIA

Golan

Heights

Med. Sea

ISRAEL

WEST

BANK

Tel Aviv

Amman

Jerusalem

GAZA

JORDAN

EGYPT

50 MILES

Palestinian towns

Israeli settlement

Green Line

(under 1949

armistice

accord)

EAST

JERUSALEM

Damascus

Gate

The Temple

Mount

Old City

Christian

Quarter

Muslim

Quarter

Dome of

the Rock

Western Wall

al-Aqsa

Mosque

Jewish

Quarter

Armenian

Quarter

WEST

JERUSALEM

2,000 FEET

Sources: Ir Amim, B’Tselem, satellite imagery via Planet

THE WASHINGTON POST

Palestinian towns

Israeli settlement

LEB.

Med.

Sea

SYRIA

Golan

Heights

Green Line

(under 1949

armistice

accord)

EAST

JERUSALEM

ISRAEL

WEST

BANK

Tel Aviv

Amman

GAZA

Jerusalem

JORDAN

EGYPT

Damascus

Gate

50 MILES

The Temple

Mount

Old City

Christian

Quarter

Muslim

Quarter

Dome of

the Rock

Western Wall

al-Aqsa

Mosque

Jewish

Quarter

Armenian

Quarter

WEST

JERUSALEM

2,000 FEET

Sources: Ir Amim, B’Tselem, satellite imagery via Planet

THE WASHINGTON POST

Palestinian towns

Israeli settlement

LEB.

SYRIA

Med. Sea

Golan

Heights

EAST

JERUSALEM

ISRAEL

Tel Aviv

WEST

BANK

Amman

Green Line

(under 1949

armistice

accord)

Jerusalem

GAZA

JORDAN

Damascus

Gate

EGYPT

50 MILES

Old City

The Temple Mount

Christian

Quarter

Muslim

Quarter

Dome of the Rock

Western Wall

al-Aqsa Mosque

Jewish

Quarter

WEST

JERUSALEM

Armenian

Quarter

2,000 FEET

Sources: Ir Amim, B’Tselem, satellite imagery via Planet

THE WASHINGTON POST

The compound holds religious significance for Muslims, Jews and Christians.

It’s the holiest site in Judaism. The historical origins of the site are disputed among archaeologists, but in the Jewish tradition, a religious structure known as the First Temple was built on the hill during the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. The temple, around which the ancient Jewish faith was centered, and the one that followed it were destroyed when invading empires sacked Jerusalem.

“For Jews, it is the most sacred place in Jewish history and actually symbolizes the clearest contact between modern Israel and ancient Israel,” said Amichai Cohen, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

In both Jewish and Muslim traditions, it’s known as the place where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son. Jews, by custom, pray facing Jerusalem, and in particular the Temple Mount. The Western Wall, a retaining wall outside the al-Aqsa compound, has long been venerated as a focal point for Jewish prayer.

For Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary is the third-holiest site, after mosques in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Al-Aqsa is seen as the place from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after making a miraculous one-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The mosque was built on the southern part of the plaza in the early 8th century A.D. Across the courtyard is the Dome of the Rock, an ornate Islamic shrine, with a golden dome visible across much of the city.

Who is in charge of the compound?

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and later declared all of Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital — a move not recognized by most of the international community. Since 1967, a religious trust funded and supervised by Jordan has managed the al-Aqsa compound, an arrangement formalized in a 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.

Israel has security authority at the site and maintains a police presence. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit but are barred from praying there.

Why is it considered a flash point for conflict?

The site lies at the heart of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians for control of Jerusalem. The status of the city has proved a sticking point in efforts to reach a two-state solution to the conflict and al-Aqsa has become a symbol of the Palestinian quest for self-determination.

The mosque is “the most important religious site for Muslims in Palestine and it is absolutely central to Palestinian identity,” said Khaled Elgindy, a Palestinian affairs expert at the Middle East Institute.

Violations of the status quo have been interpreted by many Palestinians as acts of aggression. A visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, to the site in 2000 helped spark the second intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada — a 4½-year Palestinian uprising during which more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed.

In recent years, Israel’s installation of metal detectors at the compound provoked a violent backlash in 2017. And members of an emboldened Israeli religious nationalist movement have increasingly ventured onto the plaza, often joined and encouraged by Ben Gvir.

Jordan issued a formal complaint to Israel in April 2021 about large groups of Jewish visitors violating the status quo. The following month, Ben Gvir’s support for settlers in an East Jerusalem neighborhood helped catalyze an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza.

“Every time a minister or a Knesset member or a member of an extremist settler group goes up to the al-Aqsa compound, they are eroding the status quo,” Elgindy said.

Rights groups also say Israeli security forces are quick to storm the site and to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

Are Jews divided over whether to pray there?

A “very large majority” of religious and more secular Jewish Israelis refrain from going to the Temple Mount, Cohen said. Given how easily inflamed tensions there can become, many feel that Jews should avoid the area so as to not provoke Palestinians and stoke another round of violence.

But there are religious reasons why some Jews believe it’s important to stay off the Temple Mount. Many orthodox leaders say Jews should not walk on the “Holy of Holies,” part of the site of the historic Jewish temples there. Jews from all over the world visit and pray at the adjoining Western Wall.

Why did Ben Gvir visit?

Ben Gvir has emerged as the leader of Israel’s far-right religious nationalist movement, which has soared in popularity in recent years and pushed for a greater Jewish presence at the Temple Mount.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office reiterated this week that he is committed to upholding the status quo. But Ben Gvir, his ally in government, has long advocated for changing the arrangement. Known for his Jewish supremacist views, he has been convicted of inciting racism against Arabs and supporting a terrorist group.

For Ben Gvir, who built his career on making inflammatory statements designed to provoke Palestinians, it’s politically expedient to break with the norm, Cohen said.

“Ben Gvir is the politician that has gained most from challenging the existing policy on Temple Mount,” Cohen said.

Now, he is no longer just a populist rabble-rouser but a cabinet minister with an expanded suite of powers over Israel’s security forces. The trip to the Temple Mount at the start of his tenure was likely intended to send a message “reminding Palestinians who’s boss” and possibly to trigger unrest that would give him “the pretext to crack down,” Elgindy said.

Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

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