An Israeli journalist has violated a total ban on non-Muslim access to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, triggering an online setback and potentially strenuous growing ties between Tel Aviv and the Gulf nations.
Israel’s Channel 13 News aired a 10-minute report on Monday in which journalist Gil Tamary drove past the large mosque that houses the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam, and climbed the Mount of Mercy.
Accompanied by a local guide whose face was blurred to prevent identification, Tamary lowered his voice as he spoke to the camera in Hebrew and occasionally switched to English to avoid revealing himself as an Israeli.
The report was considered a scoop and the journalist the first Jewish Israeli reporter to document the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the Hajj.
The footage received a strong backlash online, with the Twitter hashtag “A Jew in the Great Mosque of Mecca” which was popular after the report was sent.
Among the critics was Mohammed Saud, a pro-Israel Saudi activist. “My dear friends in Israel, a journalist of yours went into the city of Mecca, holy to Islam, and filmed there shamelessly,” he said.
“Shame on you, Channel 13, for hurting the religion of Islam in that way. You are rude.”
Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freij, a Muslim, condemned Tamari’s report as “stupid and harmful” to Israeli-Gulf ties.
“It was irresponsible and harmful to send this report just for the sake of judgment,” he added.
Tamary, who was in Jeddah and covered US President Joe Biden’s visit on Friday, apologized after the setback online and said he did not intend to offend Muslims.
“If anyone is offended by this video, I’m very sorry,” he wrote in English on Twitter.
Disclaimer: I would like to reiterate that this visit to Mecca was not intended to offend Muslims, or any other person. If anyone is shocked by this video, I’m very sorry. The purpose of this whole endeavor was to show the importance of Mecca and its beauty
– Gil Tamari (@tamarygil) July 19, 2022
“The purpose of this whole endeavor was to show the importance of Mecca and the beauty of religion, and to do so by promoting more religious tolerance and inclusion,” he added.
The journalist claimed “curiosity is at the heart and center of journalism” and that his reporting had been driven by the desire to let people “see, for the first time, a place so important to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to human history.” .
The Mountain of Mercy watches over the plain of Arafat, revered as the place where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon 14 centuries ago.
Mecca is the holiest 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 are not allowed to enter. Violation of this rule may result in a fine or expulsion.
Saudi media, strictly controlled by the government, did not cover the story. It was unclear whether the authorities had approved the journalist’s Mecca trip.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations, and the kingdom does not recognize 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 about the growing influence in the region of their common enemy Iran.
Saudi Arabia said last week that it would open its airspace to all airlines, paving the way for more flights to and from Israel, as a further sign that relations between the two countries are warming.
The Biden administration wants Saudi Arabia to be its own addition to the normalization agreements known as the “Abraham Accords”, a process under former President Donald Trump that saw Israel normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.