Jeremy Bowen has been promoted from Middle East to **International** editor and has been mostly covering the war in Ukraine but he still can't resist pontificating on Israel/Palestine. On 4th Jan 2023, Today programme (19 mins to 9) Nick Robinson called upon him to report upon a dastardly provocation that Melanie Phillips describes as:
“a Jew walking for 15 minutes on the site that is most sacred to Judaism … without fanfare or media attention, early in the morning when the compound was almost empty and didn’t pray there or say anything to stir up trouble.”
The Arab press calls this “storming” the al-Aqsa Mosque!
Here’s a near-as-dammit transcription of the item I heard on the Today Programme last Wednesday at 19 minutes to nine.
Now, why did a brief visit by the new Israeli security minister to the Alaska (sic) mosque compound in Jerusalem lead to such international condemnation and also to warnings of violent retribution from Hamas? China and the UAE have now called for a UN security council meeting to condemn the visit. Jeremy Bowen knows the area well, he’s our international editor and joins us on the line. “Morning, Happy New year to you Jeremy!” (Bowen mumbles) “Deliberately naive question if I may Jeremy - a daft laddie question - he didn’t pray, he didn’t enter the mosque at all, so why the fuss? “
Well, it’s very symbolic. Ah, the piece of ground in question, which Jews call the Temple Mount in English, and Muslims call - Palestinians call The Noble sanctuary in Arabic, ah it’s probably the - it’s certainly the most disputed ground - piece of ground - in the Middle East and quite possibly the world - it’s holy to both religions - the holiest place for Jews, the third holiest place for Muslims and it’s also a massive national symbol, particularly for Palestinians; and now this particular individual, Itamar Ben-Gvir is the most prominent group …. prominent of a group of militant right-wingers on whom the new government of mister Netanyahu relies for support, and they’re driving the ideology of the government and of course his supporters say that they’re elected fair and square, that’s democracy; but Ben-Gvir, he’s a police minister but he’s got a long criminal record of which includes incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation.”
Huge symbolism then, as it is it’s him going there, but I guess what everybody’s watching is to see the underlying question of what policy actually changes under this new wide coalition.
Yes, well, Netanyahu’s come back to power, relying on the votes in the Israeli parliament of these hard-line right-wingers, which, y’know, Israelis in the election liked the look of their coalition and voted for it. It’s not just a question of supporting harder action against Palestinians in the occupied territories, although that’s a big part of it. The— in Israel when they form a new coalition government they have a … they put out a political agreement, a statement. Now, this is often, not at all um, ah, brought in ‘to the letter’, but it’s clear that Ben-Gvir and his colleagues, they want big changes inside Israel to make it more religious, more their version of how a Jewish state should be and this horrifies many secular Israelis, and what would that mean? It means putting orthodox Jewish beliefs ahead of the rights of women - of LGBTQ people, of Arab citizens - 20% of the population of Israel is in fact Palestinian Arab. Ben-Gvir says those people need to know who is the landlord of the country, by which he means “the Jews.“ And they’re also, there are talks about removing much of the independence of the Israeli judiciary which for Netanyahu may have the result of rescuing him from his own trial, which is continuing, on very serious corruption charges and all this at a time when the West Bank is very tense and anything that stirs the pot there is… daindruss!
When you say tense Jeremy I’ve heard people predicting that it could ‘blow’ this year, that we could see very serious trouble indeed. On the West Bank that might be the excuse the Hamas wants to move out of its stronghold in Gaza and move in, do you think that’s a likely scenario?
Tensions are very high on the West Bank, and also in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem without question and it’s a really daindruss situation, it’s a really daindruss cocktail of a new generation growing up of Palestinians, a lack of hope, a feeling that um their aspirations towards - towards independence, towards freedom because there are millions of people who’ve been under a harsh military occupation now for generations, if you feel that that’s never going to go away - one thing that Netanyahu’s government has given another hard right-winger Mr Smotrich a lot of authority over settlements to expand them and so it’s a very difficult and daindruss situation; it’s a really nasty cocktail. Last year in 2022 something like 150 Palestinians were killed in the area by Israeli security forces, and more than 30 Israelis. Now Netanyahu. in his politics, has tried to play a double or a treble game, where he says one thing and does something else, reality and rhetoric being separated, but hard-liners like Ben-Gvir are very serious about imposing their views - and now can Netanyahu control them? Does he want to? and at the same time there’s this rising tide of anger among Palestinians and it’s just one serious incident, I’d say, at any given time, away from a very serious situation.
Jeremy, thank you.
It did occur to me that the disdainful description of the new Israeli government: “militant ‘hard-right-wingers’ that's “putting orthodox Jewish beliefs ahead of the rights of women, of LGBTQ people, of Arab citizens” looks oddly hypocritical when it comes from someone who happily overlooks the illiberal “orthodox religious beliefs” of his favoured ethnicity. On this occasion, only Nick Robinson specifically mentioned the word “Hamas” but that particular absence from Bowen’s narrative was conspicuous.