National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s appearance at the entrance of Al-Aqsa Mosque on Tuesday morning resonated in the media and evoked responses from Israel and abroad.
Despite the possible implications, the visit, admittedly very brief, passed smoothly with no incident. Ben-Gvir, whose every visit to the site has been a recipe for an explosion, entered the mosque compound this time as national security minister and as a member of the security cabinet. He strolled around the mosque plaza and had his picture taken, in defiance of Hamas and the Palestinians. The police and the minister’s aides can claim a tactical victory.
The event passed quietly despite all the warnings and threats, both from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and from Hamas in the Gaza Strip and even from opposition leader Yair Lapid – that the visit would cause a conflagration and lead to bloodshed.
The lack of Palestinian response in Jerusalem can perhaps be explained by the fact that it doesn’t depend on those leaders. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have an organizational infrastructure in Jerusalem that can dictate the public agenda and bring masses out to the streets.
On the face of it, this is no advantage, quite the opposite. There were times in which talking to key figures in the authority or the Palestinian leadership in East Jerusalem prevented confrontation and violence and bloodshed.
But in recent years the public response in Jerusalem has mainly been grassroots and unexpected. The affair of the metal detectors at the Al-Aqsa Mosque’s gates in 2017, the protest at Sheikh Jarrah and the violent riots in May 2021 all go to show that in East Jerusalem the tone isn’t set by the leadership or by a certain faction. It’s mainly set by a protest that can erupt in a moment and sweep masses in its wake, with no warning and no instructions from Gaza or Ramallah.
Protest and uprising in Jerusalem around the Al-Aqsa Mosque resonate in the wider sphere – the West Bank and Gaza Strip and also within the Green Line. And if this isn’t enough, Amman, Cairo and even far away Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are alert to the visit’s significance.
Suffice it to examine the flurry of responses to understand the message: Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa are not the same as Gaza and Jenin. The number fatalities in the West Bank in the last year didn’t prompt the messages the world relayed this week. Nothing competes with the symbolism of Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem.
Ben-Gvir and the police may check a V sign, but the visit contributed immensely to Palestinian public diplomacy, without a single violent incident.
The Palestinian leadership could only dream of convening the UN Security Council a week after the swearing in of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, not to mention receiving Arab and Islamic support and even an American response adopting their position regarding the status quo in Jerusalem.
This happened less than a week after the United Nations’ General Assembly approved the motion – at the Palestinians’ request – to seek the opinion of the International Court of Justice to determine the legal consequences of Israel’s ongoing violation of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
Israel of course slammed the resolution and threatened not to cooperate, but in a week it’ll have to deal with the Security Council’s meeting and with denunciations from all over the world.
Ben-Gvir visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque and stroked his ego and perhaps some of his voters’ egos. In fact, he did a great service to Palestinian public diplomacy and to the Al-Aqsa Mosque’s status in the Arab and Islamic world. Perhaps he’ll adopt the slogan “Ben-Gvir is good for the Arabs.”