BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Leader of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett entered the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron under strict security Thursday night, according to Israeli media.
The Israeli Channel 7 website reported Friday that Bennett, who is also Minister of the Economy, made the unannounced visit escorted by several members of his party and met with Israel’s army commander in Hebron, Yariv Ben Ezra.
The move comes just days ahead of the Israeli Knesset elections and weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his own plans to visit the mosque.
The Ibrahimi Mosque is known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, and is the site where both faiths believe the Biblical patriarch Abraham is buried.
It is also of great political significance, due to a massacre that took place there on Feb. 25, 1994, when Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshipers and injured dozens more using an assault rifle before being beaten to death by survivors.
Netanyahu’s planned visit, which he intended to carry out while visiting the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank, has been seen as part of his efforts to win settler votes in the upcoming elections.
However, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party has a stronger base among settlers than Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Jewish Home opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and believes that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
The party also believes that the settlements in the West Bank are important for Israel’s security and should not be uprooted in the future.
Palestinian officials from both Fatah and Hamas previously said that Netanyahu’s plans to visit the mosque were a “time bomb” that could drag the area into more violence and disorder.
One Palestinian security source told Ma’an that “Netanyahu lit the wick of a big bomb in Hebron, and we do not know when or where it will explode.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also entered the mosque earlier this month, sparking protests in the city. Rivlin, whose position is less politically charged than that of Prime Minister, called for “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians.
Today around 700 settlers live in 80 homes in the city center of Hebron, surrounded by nearly 200,000 Palestinians and protected by the Israeli army.