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Criticism has followed Israel's new security minister's visit to Jerusalem site


Israel's new government just took office last week, and it's already prompted some international rebukes. This morning, a key cabinet minister, a Jewish ultranationalist, visited Jerusalem's most sensitive religious site - the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Criticism of the move came from Palestinians, some Israelis and several countries, including one of Israel's new partners in the region. NPR's Daniel Estrin has more from Tel Aviv.


DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Under heavy Israeli police guard, new Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir walked the perimeter of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. He noted the Hamas militant group had warned against the visit.


ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said the Israeli government will not give in to a despicable terrorist organization. The Temple Mount is the most important place for the people of Israel. In Jewish tradition, the hilltop that's the mosque compound is where the biblical temples stood. Ben-Gvir and Jewish ultranationalists have called for prayer rights and more access there. Palestinians fear Israel wants to take over the site, which is administered by Jordan. Mustafa Abu Sway is on the Mosque Advisory Council.

MUSTAFA ABU SWAY: Only the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the rightful custodian of the holy places - the Christian and Muslim holy places in Jerusalem - are responsible for all the internal affairs at this mosque, as long as the Israeli occupation is in place.

ESTRIN: Jordan summoned Israel's ambassador in protest. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said unilateral actions that don't preserve the status quo are unacceptable. The European Union spoke out, too. Israel's chief rabbi also protested. Orthodox Judaism is divided on the religious implications of visiting the site. It's also politically controversial in Israel.

EHUD OLMERT: It's outrageous. It's totally intolerable, and I completely understand the reaction of the international community.

ESTRIN: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to NPR.

OLMERT: The desire to visit there is a provocative attitude by this thug who happens to be the minister of national security. And it has to stop. And if it will not stop, it'll trigger an explosive confrontation.

ESTRIN: Disputes over the mosque compound have prompted Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years and worried Muslims internationally. Today, the United Arab Emirates protested, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to visit the country were reportedly postponed. Ksenia Svetlova, Mideast analyst and former Israeli lawmaker, thinks that reaction must have stunned Netanyahu because the U.A.E. led the group of Arab countries that established ties with Israel in the Abraham Accords.

KSENIA SVETLOVA: This is a clear sign that the Abraham Accords states are not going to just accept this behavior or be silent about it.

ESTRIN: There was also condemnation from Saudi Arabia, the country Netanyahu is trying to court for a peace deal. After Ben-Gvir's visit today, Netanyahu said he's committed to maintaining the status quo at the sensitive religious site.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.