The U.S. spoke out Tuesday against “any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo” in the heart of the Middle East after a member of Israel’s new ultranationalist cabinet visited a sensitive Jerusalem holy site sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Such moves “are unacceptable,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Israel’s new far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has previously been convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist group, visited the site known by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as Al-Aqsa Mosque. He was surrounded by security guards.
The holy site is administered by the country of Jordan and an Islamic endowment called the Waqf. Muslims are allowed to pray there, but Jews and Christians are not. Ben-Gvir has long decried that status quo as discriminatory and called for greater Jewish access.
Palestinians consider the site a national symbol, and the storming of Al-Aqsa by Israeli security forces was a major catalyst for 11 days of violence in 2021.
Ben-Gvir’s move this week came amid rising concern over Israel’s new government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is once again at the helm, but he got there by forming a coalition with ultra-conservative, ultra-nationalist parties, ushering in the most far-right cabinet in Israel’s history.
Tension has mounted in the Israel-occupied West Bank for months, with 2022 being the deadliest year for Palestinians in the territory in nearly two decades, according to the United Nations.
Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Muhammad Shtayyeh called Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Jerusalem holy site “a violation of all norms, values, international agreements and laws, and Israel’s pledges to the American president,” BBC News reported.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by both Israel and the United States, said the visit was a “crime” and vowed the site would remain “Palestinian, Arab, Islamic,” according to the AFP news agency.
“The President has previously underscored the need to preserve the historic status quo at the Haram al Sharif Temple Mount, as has the Secretary. We have done so repeatedly with our Israeli partners; we have done so repeatedly with our Jordanian partners,” Price told reporters Tuesday at the State Department. “We took note of the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing platform calls for preservation of the historic status quo in relation to the holy places. We expect him to follow through on that commitment.”
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said he had “been very clear in conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites,” the Associated Press reported. “Actions that prevent that are unacceptable.”
The United Arab Emirates and China called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council after Ben-Gvir’s visit, and a spokesperson for Germany’s foreign ministry said it expected “the new Israeli government to commit to a continuation of the tried and tested practice around the holy sites in Jerusalem and to put a stop to further deliberate provocations.”