Israel’s far-right Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and a number of Jewish settlers forced their way into occupied East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Tuesday, according to a Palestinian official.
“They stormed the Al-Aqsa compound and toured the area under the protection of Israeli forces,” Firas al-Dibs, a spokesperson for Jerusalem’s Jordan-run Religious Endowments Authority, told Anadolu Agency on Tuesday.
The move comes amid tensions in Jerusalem after a series of Palestinian protests and the subsequent arrest of dozens of Palestinian activists by Israeli forces earlier this week.
Israeli police had also briefly detained the head of the Religious Endowments Authority Sheikh Abdelazeem Salhab, along with his deputy, after he prayed with other Palestinians near al-Rahma gate at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound for the first time in 16 years.
Palestinian protesters streamed into the area that Israel had sealed off in 2003 because it was home to a heritage organisation allegedly connected with an armed group.
Israeli police accused the Waqf, the Islamic authority that oversees the compound, of attempting to change the status quo at the sensitive site by convening in the closed area.
According to local media reports, Ariel, who was under Israeli police protection and accompanied by tens of settlers, made his way to the al-Rahma gate where he took photos of the area that continues to remain restricted to Palestinian worshipers.
Last week, Israeli authorities closed the al-Rahma gate with chains, preventing hundreds of Palestinian worshippers from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex after a group of Palestinians had opened it.
The contested site, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the al-Haram al-Sharif (or the Noble Sanctuary), is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The compound is the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and is the holiest site for Jews. It has been a flashpoint of violence in the past.
Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to take over the site so it can build the Third Temple, allegations denied by the Israeli government, which says it has no plans to change the status quo.
Since Temple activists have admitted that praying at the compound is the first step in achieving their goal of building the Third Temple in the Noble Sanctuary, Palestinians remain concerned about Jewish visitors to the compound, many of whom attempt to pray there.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is located, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It proceeded to annex the entire city in 1980 in a move that was never recognised by the international community.
In late 2000, a visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sparked what later became known as the second Intifada, or uprising – a five-year-long popular uprising in which thousands of Palestinians were killed.