Israeli Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel on Sunday forced his way into east Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound for the first time by an Israeli official since 2015. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lifted a three-year ban on government officials and Knesset members visiting the site.
Ariel, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, led a group of Jewish settlers into the Al-Aqsa courtyard under heavy security measures, according to eyewitnesses. Images posted on the right-wing news site Arutz Sheva showed Ariel with the golden-topped Dome of the Rock behind him. After his visit, he spoke to Israeli public radio about the restrictions placed on Jewish access to the site and the total ban on Jewish prayer there, as reported by Agence France-Presse (AFP). According to Israeli Channel 7, Ariel had obtained a prior approval before visiting the Al-Aqsa compound in line with instructions requiring members of the Knesset (MKs) to submit a request 24 hours before visiting the site. A statement on the Israeli parliament website says visits are being allowed to resume under certain conditions, including making the request 24 hours in advance to allow coordination with police.
Netanyahu had allowed Knesset members to visit the compound once every three months, according to local Israeli media. In October 2015, Netanyahu banned MKs from entering the Al-Aqsa compound in an effort to calm violence that broke out across the Israel-occupied West Bank as a result of repeated incursions by Jewish settlers to the site.
For Muslims, Al-Aqsa represents the world's third holiest site. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the "Temple Mount," claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times. Some extremist Jewish groups have called for the demolition of the Al-Aqsa Mosque so that a Jewish temple might be built in its place.
In September 2000, a visit to the flashpoint religious site by late Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked what later became known as the "Second Intifada," a popular Palestinian uprising in which thousands of people were killed.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem where Al-Aqsa is located during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the entire city in 1980, unilaterally claiming it as the capital of the self-proclaimed Jewish state.