Israeli minister's visit to mosque sparks anger

JERUSALEM, June 23 (Reuters) - An Israeli cabinet minister who made headlines last week for racist remarks about Arabs paid a rare visit to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque on Tuesday, prompting condemnation from Palestinian religious leaders.

Nine years ago, a similar visit sparked a bloody uprising.

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, went to Islam's third holiest site to review police deployments in the flashpoint area, his spokesman said.

He said the visit was coordinated with Muslim authorities, a remark contradicted by the city's leading cleric.

During the 90-minute visit, Aharonovitch entered the mosque, which sits in a complex in the Old City known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The area also houses the gilded Dome of the Rock shrine.

Israel captured the site in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it with the rest of East Jerusalem, in a move not recognised internationally.

Visits to the compound by Israeli officials are rare and extremely sensitive. A Palestinian uprising, known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, erupted in 2000 following a visit to the compound by right-wing politician Ariel Sharon. He later became Israel's prime minister.

"The intention of the visit was to see how the police would deploy in case of an emergency," Aharonovitch's spokesman Tal Harel said. He said the visit was coordinated with Muslim custodians of the site, known as the Waqf, or endowment.

"We went everywhere. We were accompanied by the Waqf, who were fully aware of our presence, and this was planned in coordination with them well ahead of the visit," Harel added.

The Palestinian-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, said the visit was not coordinated in advance.

"He does not have the right to visit al-Aqsa because it is an Islamic site and not a Jewish site, and it could ignite violence because the visit provokes the feelings of Muslims... It is an assault on an Islamic place," Hussein said.

It was Aharonovitch's first visit as minister.

Last week, Arab opposition members of Israel's parliament called for Aharonovitch to resign over comments he made during a meeting with police officers.

In television footage, the minister, responding to an undercover police agent who apologised for his dirty clothes, said with a laugh: "What do you mean dirty? You look like a real 'Araboosh'", a derogatory term for an Arab in Hebrew slang.

Aharonovitch apologised for the remark. (Reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Editing by Dominic Evans) (For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to