Israeli minister rues ‘stupid’ Israeli TV report in Mecca

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view shows the Grand Mosque during the annual haj pilgrimage, in the holy city of Makkah

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli minister on Wednesday denounced as ‘stupid and harmful’ to Israel-Gulf ties a TV report by a journalist who entered Islam’s holiest site Mecca despite a ban on non-Muslim visits and who apologised for the event after an online backlash.

Israel’s Channel 13 News aired a 10-minute report from Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace, by its journalist Gil Tamary on Monday, in which he was travelling in a car by the Grand Mosque in Mecca and climbing the Mount of Mercy, which oversees the plain of Arafat revered as the place where Prophet Mohammad held his last sermon 14 centuries ago.

Accompanied by a person who appears to be a local guide and whose face is blurred to prevent his identification, Tamary lowers his voice while speaking to the camera in Hebrew, and at times switches to English to avoid revealing he is Israeli.

“I’m sorry (but) it was a stupid thing to do and take pride in,” Israel’s regional cooperation minister Esawi Freij, who is Muslim, told public broadcaster Kan. “It was irresponsible and damaging to air this report just for the sake of ratings.”

Freij said the report hurt U.S.-encouraged efforts to gradually move Israel and Saudi Arabia toward more normal ties, similar to the 2020 diplomatic deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Riyadh does not recognise Israel, saying this would require addressing Palestinian statehood goals first.

The Twitter hashtag “A Jew in Mecca’s Grand Mosque” trended after the report was aired.

“My dear friends in Israel, a journalist of yours entered the city of Mecca, holy to Islam, and filmed there shamelessly,” Mohammed Saud, a pro-Israel Saudi activist said on Twitter. “Shame on you Channel 13, for hurting the religion of Islam like that. You are rude.”

Saudi media, tightly controlled by the government, did not cover the story and officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Tamary was in Jeddah covering U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit on Friday. It was unclear whether authorities had approved his Mecca journey, for which he later apologised, saying he had not intended to offend Muslims.

“If anyone takes offense to this video, I deeply apologize,” he wrote in English on Twitter. “The purpose of this entire endeavor was to showcase the importance of Mecca and the beauty of the religion, and in doing so, foster more religious tolerance and inclusion,” he added.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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