Al-Aqsa storming doesn’t bode well for religious rights in Israel

Ben-Gvir’s actions are a direct threat not just to Muslims, but also Christians and liberal Jews.

Israeli security forces protect a group of Jewish settler visitors as they walk past the Dome of the Rock mosque at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, on August 7, 2022
Israeli security forces protect a group of Jewish settler visitors as they walk past the Dome of the Rock mosque at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, on August 7, 2022, amidst heightened tensions between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip [Ahmad Gharabli /AFP]

On January 3, Israel’s newly sworn-in National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir stormed Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site. The outrage and condemnations from Palestine and abroad followed swiftly.

The Palestinian government in Ramallah called on Palestinians to “confront the raids into Al Aqsa mosque”, while Hamas in Gaza labelled the move an “aggression against our sanctities”.

Arab states – including Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, which have normalised relations with Israel – condemned Ben-Gvir’s provocative actions. A planned visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Abu Dhabi was postponed.

The Biden administration slammed the move, saying it stands “firmly for the preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem”.

The “status quo”, which Ben-Gvir is clearly intent on challenging, is a 19th-century arrangement regulating who administers the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It has been recognised by countries across the world, as well as the United Nations, and has the status of binding international law.

Al-Haram al-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, is part of the Islamic waqf (endowment) administered by the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. Thus, by the power of the status quo arrangement, it is King Abdullah II and the Jordanian-appointed Jerusalem Waqf Council who should decide what happens within its boundaries.

By storming al-Haram al-Sharif at his whim, Ben-Gvir is trying to change that and establish Israeli control over the Islamic holy site. While the move is seen as threatening the religious rights of Muslims, the agenda that Israel’s national security minister and his allies are pursuing will violate the rights of all religious communities in Israel-Palestine, including many Jews.

Ben-Gvir is not the first high-ranking Israeli politician to storm into Al-Aqsa. For decades, Israel has sought to erode the “status quo” in Jerusalem – an issue right-wing Israeli politicians have routinely used to gain support from the right-leaning Israeli electorate.

In 2000, Likud Party leader and former minister Ariel Sharon forced his entry into al-Haram al-Sharif. He spoke of “the right of Jews in Israel” to visit the site, seeking to boost his popularity amid a political scuffle for power in Israel. His provocation worked: he was elected prime minister several months later.

Sharon’s storming of Al-Aqsa eventually paved the way for the Israeli authorities to halt coordination with the Jordanians over access to the site and establish full control over who gets to go in and who does not.

It has been Jordan’s policy to allow non-Muslims into Al-Aqsa compound during certain hours when Muslims are not praying; visitors are expected to respect the regulations of the Islamic shrine and are barred from praying or displaying religious symbols.

While the Israeli security guards have generally kept Jewish visitors from entering outside the designated hours, they have been increasingly relaxed about Jewish prayer and the display of religious symbols in Al-Aqsa compound.

What Ben-Gvir aims to do is not only to upend the current rules for visitation in Al-Aqsa but to lead a complete Israeli takeover and the change of the status quo. He has made clear that he believes Jews should control the compound and build a synagogue in it.

This is not a wild or fringe position. The fact that Israel has slowly eroded the religious rights of Muslims over their holy site in the past few decades demonstrates that it is pushing in this direction.

And it is not only Muslims who have to fear for their holy sites. The aggressive Judaization of Jerusalem that successive Israeli governments have pursued is threatening the indigenous Muslim and Christian communities of the city, not only with expulsion but also with the takeover of religious properties.

The recent attack on the Protestant cemetery in Jerusalem in which Christian graves were desecrated is a clear demonstration that Palestinian Christians face the same dark fate as their Muslim brothers and sisters. Christians are also often barred from visiting their holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as Israel regulates their access from Gaza and the West Bank.

Properties belonging to various Christian denominations in Jerusalem have been threatened with expropriations by the Israeli state or settler organisations. For example, the Petra Hotel near Jaffa Gate is in danger of a takeover by a powerful Jewish settler group, while a plot of land in Silwan was recently illegally fenced off by Jewish settlers; both properties belong to the Greek Orthodox Church.

But as Israel slips further and further towards theocracy, it is not just the rights of non-Jews that are in danger. Jews – specifically liberal Jews or those who follow Reform Judaism – will also see their religious rights eroded.

The United Torah Judaism party, which is part of the ruling coalition, for example, has made it clear that it will seek to deepen gender segregation in public spaces, further enforce the observance of the Sabbath and cut any government support for liberal Judaism. Ultraconservative elements have also raised the issue of converts to Judaism and their status in Israel and marriage between Jews and non-Jews, which they think should be forbidden.

The rights of the LGBTQ community in Israel – long used to pinkwash the crimes of the occupation – are also threatened. Already, Netanyahu’s ultra-conservative allies have called for legislative changes that would make it legal for businesses and medical practitioners to refuse service to LGBTQ people.

The far-right, ultra-religious direction Israeli politics has been taking has been apparent for some time. No number of “condemnations” from the West will change it.

It would be good to remember that Sharon’s storming of Al-Aqsa in 2000 was one of the sparks that led to the second Intifada. The Palestinians, and their supporters, will not passively accept Israel’s violation of their religious rights and attempts to usurp their holiest sites. The question is, will the international community watch passively as it has done for the past many decades or finally take decisive action on Israel and stop its crimes?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.