JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's hard-right Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited a site in Jerusalem holy to both Muslims and Jews on Sunday and declared Israel was "in charge", drawing condemnation from Palestinians after months of escalating tension and violence.
The comments, during an early morning visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, sacred to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as Temple Mount, came days after groups of Jewish youths scuffled with Palestinians and chanted racist slogans during a nationalist march through the Old City.
"I'm happy to ascend the Temple Mount, the most important place for the people of Israel," Ben-Gvir said during his visit to the compound, the most sensitive point between Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem and the site of repeated confrontations.
In 2021, tensions around Al-Aqsa contributed to setting off a 10-day war with the Islamist Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas has warned repeatedly that it would react to what it sees as Jewish incursions on the site, which stands in Jordanian custodianship under a longstanding "status quo" arrangement put in place to contain tensions.
"All the threats from Hamas will not help, we are in charge here in Jerusalem and all of the Land of Israel," Ben-Gvir said.
For Jews, Temple Mount is the holiest place, where the biblical King Solomon built the first Temple 3,000 years ago and where a second Temple was razed by the Romans. Today, the hillside site is the third holiest in Islam, holding Al-Aqsa mosque with the Dome of the Rock, believed to be where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven.
Under the status quo arrangements, non-Muslims may visit the site in the heart of the Old City but are not allowed to pray. However Jewish visitors have been increasingly defying the ban, more or less openly.
Palestinians consider defiance of the ban on prayer as a provocation and fear that Israel intends to take over the site.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Ben-Gvir's "incursion at an early hour, like thieves, into the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyards will not change the reality and will not impose Israeli sovereignty over it."
A Hamas spokesman said Israel would bear the consequences for Ben-Gvir's "savage assault" on the mosque and it called on Palestinians to step up their visits and "stand as a rampart in the face of all attempts to defile it and make it Jewish."
Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, which includes Al-Aqsa and the adjacent Western Wall, a sacred place of prayer for Jews, during the 1967 Middle Eastern war.
Israel has since annexed East Jerusalem, in a move not recognized by the international community, and regards the entire city as its eternal and undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)