RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Mecca police say they arrested a Saudi man who helped a Jewish-Israeli journalist sneak into Islam’s holiest city, defying a rule that only Muslims can enter In the region.
While Muslims of all nationalities and backgrounds can enter Makkah, non-Muslims are not permitted as a very specific code of conduct and behavior is required of all people within its borders, including some forms of modesty, ritual purification and prayers.
Public reaction to TV journalist Gil Tamary’s visit was immediate on social media, with Muslims and Saudis expressing anger at his deception and apparent disregard for the sanctity of the site.
It comes as Saudi-Israeli relations quietly develop amid shared concerns about sworn enemy Iran. This incident is unlikely to cool the relationship. Publicly, the kingdom insists on its policy is that full ties can only happen when the state and Palestinian rights are guaranteed.
The outcry appeared to have prompted Saudi police late Friday to announce the arrest of the Saudi man who they say facilitated the journalist’s entry into Mecca in explicit violation of regulations banning entry of non-Muslims. The Saudi national, whose identity has not been revealed, has been prosecuted and remains under arrest.
The veteran Channel 13 reporter in Israel filmed himself in Mecca for a roughly 10-minute segment aired on Monday in which he visited a key site on the hajj pilgrimage route where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon around 1,400 years ago.
He said he knowingly slipped into Makkah with a driver, saying he spoke quietly in Hebrew so no one could hear him. He claimed to be the first Israeli Jew to enter the city. He did not identify himself as Israeli or Jewish to the driver during check-ins.
In the clip that was released, Tamary and her Saudi driver pass a highway exit that says non-Muslims can’t pass, then pass under a huge replica of the Quran which is the main gateway to the city. . “The dream has come true,” he says as they cross Mecca and head towards Mount Arafat.
After climbing the mountain, he says the religious police are starting to ask questions and want to make sure he is a Muslim. They decide to leave.
Mecca is home to Islam’s holiest shrine, the cube-shaped Kaaba, the metaphorical house of God located in the city’s Great Mosque. The shrine marks the point to which devout Muslims around the world pray five times a day. It is also the ultimate destination for the Muslim hajj and the minor Umrah pilgrimage.
The journalist and Channel 13 responded on Twitter after the report aired. The news channel, in Hebrew and Arabic, said Tamary’s reporting was driven by “journalistic curiosity” and a desire to testify and see things firsthand. The popular Israeli channel has apologized for any anger stoked by its visit, which occurred during President Joe Biden’s trip to the neighboring city of Jeddah. The Times of Israel quoted an unnamed source familiar with the matter as saying that Israeli government officials were satisfied with the statements released by the station and its reporter.
Makkah police said they also referred the journalist’s actions to prosecutors, although the Israeli national is no longer in the kingdom.
The Saudi statement did not identify the reporter, saying only that he was not a Muslim and had American citizenship, implying that he had entered the country using his American passport since the kingdom is not has no official connection with Israel.
Police have called on visitors to respect the country’s laws, especially when it comes to Mecca and Islam’s holiest sites in the kingdom.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Ariel Schalit in Jerusalem and Fares Akram in Gaza City contributed to this report.