This article originally appeared on January 12, 2023, in the South African Jewish Report.
The domestic and international atmosphere of crisis that has accompanied Israel’s incoming government lacks context and historical perspective. This is particularly true regarding the highly charged issue of the latest Temple Mount drama, in which National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s recent 13-minute visit to the Temple Mount plaza triggered international opprobrium. The international outcry is missing critical information and instead is awash in misinformation.
The recent election of a right-wing Israeli government is the result of the widespread terrorism, violence, and crime that has been overlooked in the international discourse. More than 10 major terror assaults, some ISIS-inspired, across Israel’s major cities in 2022 claimed the lives of tens of Israeli civilians in major cities including Beer Sheva, Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, and Jerusalem.
Israelis became afraid to allow their children to leave their homes, particularly at night. Additionally, Israel has suffered an increasing problem of Bedouin Israeli gangs committing violent crimes, stealing public land in the Negev, and robbing civilians, stopping their cars at gunpoint. Additionally, the Hamas rocket war of 2021 fuelled by the historic “Al-Aqsa is in danger” libel, triggered widespread violence against Jews in mixed cities such as Ramla, Lod, Acco, and Jaffa.
Palestinian Authority incitement against Israel’s presence in Jerusalem has taken a toll. A January 2023 Palestinian public opinion poll revealed that a majority of Palestinians support armed terror attacks inside Israeli territory. At the same time, an increasing trend of violent crime within the Arab sector, particularly targeting women in Arab communities, brought a measurable voting constituency for Ben Gvir even among Arab Israelis, as Professor Mordechai Kedar noted in a December 2022 interview.
These trends of terrorism and violent crime across Israel’s major cities generated a broad sense of internal insecurity that resulted in Ben Gvir’s growing popularity among both religious and secular voters, including in Tel Aviv’s bastions of the Israeli left. Additionally, the sharp increase in fatal terror assaults in Israel throughout 2021 were preceded by two major Hamas rocket wars that forced a third of Israel’s population to seek shelter in underground bunkers.
Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terror factions threatened Israel’s physical security while they continued to spearhead a decades-long crusade of demonization and erasure of any Jewish connection to Jerusalem and ongoing warnings and threats preventing Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Hamas spokesman Abd Al Latif al Qanua said in the Middle East Eye in advance of Ben Gvir’s visit, “The Palestinian resistance [a code word for Hamas and PLO terror groups] will not allow the neo-fascist occupation government to cross the red lines and encroach on our peoples and our sanctities.”
It’s true that Ben Gvir’s brief visit to the Temple Mount, punctuated by his fiery personality, which triggered a dramatic debate in the Israeli and international discourse, was a response to Hamas’ explicit warning that the Temple Mount was exclusively Islamic and that Jews had “no business” demonstrating any presence there. But the United States state department spokesman Ned Price issued an inaccurate statement suggesting that Jewish visits to the Temple Mount jeopardize the “status quo” in Jerusalem and could provoke violence. It has become clear, though, that any Jewish presence in Jerusalem “provokes violence”. Hamas used the recent Sheikh Jarrah (Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood) legal case which ruled in favor of a building’s Jewish owners, to declare war against Israel, sparking riots.
The issue isn’t Ben Gvir’s visit alone, but decades of Palestinian opportunistic assaults on Israel’s presence in Jerusalem. Israel’s Old City historical Western Wall tunnel, opening in 1996 under the first Netanyahu coalition, triggered massive protest and unrest, though it had no effect on the status quo, Muslim holy shrines, or private property. Still, the international community condemned Israel, adapting Arafat’s Judeophobic narrative.
In the current situation, Israel’s domestic debate has also triggered misinformation which has spilled into the international discourse. Israeli political culture includes extreme language from both political directions, but regrettably, it results in increasing gains for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in South Africa and across the West. Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister, Yair Lapid, casting Israel’s democratically elected government as racist and anti-democratic, has only played into the hands of the Jewish state’s harshest adversaries.
Israel’s internal debate has also overshadowed the far more significant Hamas and Palestinian propaganda crusade, which claimed that Israel “stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in violation of the 1967 status quo in Jerusalem. Following the Six-Day War, former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan handed the keys of the Temple Mount to its vanquished Jordanian neighbor with the proviso that Jews would be able to visit but not publicly worship at its holiest site. As journalist and Jerusalem expert Nadav Shragai notes, Dayan’s concession was punctuated by a fear of turning what he viewed as a territorial conflict into a religious one. Ironically, though, to extremist terror organizations, the conflict is fundamentally a religious one, a fact still widely misunderstood by South Africa and the West.
The religious underpinnings of the conflict have also been underemphasized and even wilfully ignored. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have for decades implemented a policy of erasure of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of “Judaizing Jerusalem” for archaeological digs in the Old City of Jerusalem, shamelessly destroying Jewish Temple artifacts in the 1990s after the Oslo Peace Accords had already begun. Hamas has used Jerusalem-related issues as pretexts to launch its rocket wars against Israel. The 2000s’ Second Intifada, called the “Al-Aqsa Intifada”, cost hundreds of Israeli lives.
These claims were merely a continuation of a century-old Muslim Brotherhood inspired legacy. The first Palestinian Arab leader, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the British appointed and Nazi-affiliated “Grand Mufti” of Jerusalem, accused Jewish worshippers of endangering the Al-Aqsa Mosque by requesting a small partition be erected to separate men and women worshippers.
Historical context and perspective are key to understanding Ben Gvir’s actions. His symbolic turn away from what has been a tepid and concessionary Israeli approach to Jerusalem in the face of decades of violent PLO, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas policy regarding Jerusalem may appear confrontational and aggressive.
However, his approach is well understood by Palestinian adversaries who for years have succeeded in convincing Israelis and the West to adopt docile, tepid, and concessionary policies in response to both rhetorical and physical aggression. As uncomfortable and unpleasant as the optics appear, in the Middle East, the culture and language of power, honor, self-confidence, and both individual and national resilience, are concepts that Israel’s uncompromising adversaries and new regional allies understand.