The U.S. embassy in Israel has said Ambassador David Friedman was duped into being pictured receiving a provocative photo of annexed east Jerusalem with the revered Al-Aqsa mosque erased, an episode that provoked Palestinian anger on Wednesday.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas‘s adviser for religious affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, called Friedman a “terrorist settler” in comments published by official news agency WAFA.
The Palestinian government was unconvinced by the embassy’s explanation, with a spokesman calling the incident an example of “reckless and racist arrogance,” according to WAFA.
In a picture published Tuesday night by ultra-Orthodox Jewish news site Kikar Hashabbat, the Al-Aqsa mosque, on a flashpoint site holy to both Muslims and Jews, is replaced by a simulation of a Jewish temple.
US Embassy in Israel tries to contain damage after smiling US ambassador accepts gift of inflammatory, doctored photo showing Third Jewish Temple replacing Muslim Dome of the Rock: https://t.co/VVT02sb3GP
— Dion Nissenbaum (@DionNissenbaum) May 22, 2018
The picture further inflamed anger amongst Palestinians, already furious over last week’s transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after Washington recognised the disputed city as capital of Israel.
A U.S. embassy statement said the doctored image was pushed in front of Friedman without his consent during a visit to a charitable institution in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.
“Ambassador Friedman was not aware of the image thrust in front of him when the photo was taken,” it said. “He was deeply disappointed that anyone would take advantage of his visit to Bnei Brak to create controversy.”
It said it had demanded an apology from the charity Achiya, an official of which had presented the picture to Friedman.
2/2 The US policy is absolutely clear: we support the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
— USEmbassyJerusalem (@usembassyjlm) May 22, 2018
In a statement published in Israeli media, the group said a member of its staff had presented the picture on his own initiative without consulting others.
“We regret that a petty political gesture spoiled this event,” it added.
Friedman, who is Jewish and a longstanding supporter of Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is deeply unpopular among Palestinians. Abbas in March labelled him a “son of a dog”.
The story of the contentious picture hit the front pages of several Palestinian newspapers on Wednesday.
The Al-Aqsa compound is a shrine for Muslims worldwide and a potent symbol of Palestinian national identity. The second Palestinian intifada broke out in 2000 after right-wing Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the site.
Jews also revere the site, known in Judaism as Temple Mount and believed to be the location of the first and second biblical Jewish temples. Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray there, to avoid provoking tensions.