Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas visited the Temple Mount on Wednesday, touring the site in defiance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's directive to the police to prevent Knesset members from visiting the flashpoint complex amid recent tensions and violence.
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MK Ghattas claimed seeing Jews praying at the site, citing it as proof that the status quo has been breached, prompting Netanyahu to blast the move as "provocation".
"This morning I entered the Al-Aqsa compound," Ghattas wrote on his Facebook page, posting a video of himself on the Temple Mount. "Netanyahu and Israel cannot prevent us from visiting the mosque and [Israel] continues to change the status qou and increase the occupation's sovereignty over the site." After his visit, he added that "I saw a group of religious Jews prayer there with my own eyes and the police just stood by."
Israel denies any change to the status quo on the site, run by the Waqf (Islamic trust), and has even agreed to have cameras installed in an attempt to prove the claim as part of diplomatic efforts to restore the calm.
In the video, Ghattas, who is from a Christian family, addresses Netanyahu in Arabic, saying "you and your occupation will not prevent us from exercise our right to pray and visit Al-Aqsa You and your occupation are temporary but this holy place will always remain Islamic and Arabic."
Netanyahu convened a press conference in wake of the incident, blasting the lawmaker for what he called a provocation: "The Temple Mount has been quiet for two weeks. I have made every effort to keep the calm but it seems there are those who are disturbed by this. [Ghattas] didn’t go there to pray, he did it only as a provocation We will not allow any lawmaker from any side to escalate the situation on the Temple Mount. I call on all lawmakers to act responsibly."
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) called on MKs not to responds to Ghattas' actions by going to the Temple Mount themselves: "I turn to members of the coalition – let us not voice our protests. At least we will be human. Enough! There's no need to wait until there is bloodshed, you can be an MK without being a pyromaniac."
Despite his plea, Culture Minister Miri Regev blasted Ghattas' move as a "provocation" that could have lethal ramifications. "We must not allow him and his ilk to exploit democracy to endanger Israeli citizens."
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan echoed the sentiment, calling Ghattas "pathetic", and saying the incident "could increase incitment and lead to murder. Without these provocations Ghattas has nothing as a lawmaker."
Since tensions broke out, Israeli Arab lawmakers have refrained from visiting the site, despite statements claiming otherwise. At the beginning of the month, with violence in Israel and the West Bank peaking, Netanyahu ordered the police to prevent any lawmaker – Jewish or Arab – to ascend to the site, after government ministers balked at an initial order preventing only Jewish MKs from visiting the Temple Mount.