Israeli journalist sneaks into Mecca triggering online backlash

An Israeli journalist has breached a total ban on non-Muslim access to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, triggering an online backlash and potentially straining growing ties between Tel Aviv and Gulf nations.

Israel’s Channel 13 News aired a 10-minute report on Monday in which journalist Gil Tamary drove past the Grand Mosque that houses the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam, and climbed the Mount of Mercy.

Tamary, who was accompanied by a local guide whose face was blurred to prevent identification, lowered his voice while speaking to the camera in Hebrew and at times switched to English to avoid revealing himself as Israeli.

The report was billed as a scoop and the journalist the first Jewish Israeli reporter to document the annual Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj.

The footage received a strong online backlash, with the Twitter hashtag “A Jew in Mecca’s Grand Mosque” trending after the report was aired.

Among the critics was Mohammed Saud, a pro-Israel Saudi activist. “My dear friends in Israel, a journalist of yours entered the city of Mecca, holy to Islam, and filmed there shamelessly,” he said.

“Shame on you Channel 13, for hurting the religion of Islam like that. You are rude.”

Israel’s regional cooperation minister Esawi Freij, who is Muslim, denounced Tamary’s report as “stupid and harmful” to Israel-Gulf ties.

“It was irresponsible and damaging to air this report just for the sake of ratings,” he added.

Apology

Tamary, who was in Jeddah covering United States President Joe Biden’s visit on Friday, apologised after the online backlash saying he had not intended to offend Muslims.

“If anyone takes offence to this video, I deeply apologize,” he wrote in English on Twitter.

“The purpose of this entire endeavour 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.

The journalist claimed “inquisitiveness is at the heart and center of journalism” and that his reporting had been guided by the desire to allow people to “see, for the first time, a place that is so important to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to human history”.

The Mount of Mercy oversees the plain of Arafat, revered as the place where the Prophet Muhammad held his last sermon 14 centuries ago.

Mecca is the most sacred place of worship for Muslims in the world, followed by the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Only Muslims are allowed to visit Mecca, while non-Muslims cannot enter. The breach of this rule can result in a fine or deportation.

Mending ties

Saudi media, tightly controlled by the government, did not cover the story. It was unclear whether authorities had approved the journalist’s Mecca journey.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations, and the kingdom does not recognise Israel as a state.

But behind the scenes, the two sides have been working together on security issues for some time, with a common concern over the growing influence in the region of their common enemy Iran.

Saudi Arabia said last week it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel, in a further sign that relations between the two countries are warming.

The Biden administration wants Saudi Arabia to be its own addition to the normalisation deals known as the “Abraham Accords”, a process under former President Donald Trump that saw Israel normalise ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

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