RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Police in Mecca say they arrested a Saudi man who helped an Israeli-Jewish reporter sneak into Islam’s holiest city, defying a rule that only Muslims allowed to enter the area.
While Muslims of any nationality and origin can enter Mecca, non-Muslims are not allowed as a very specific code of behavior and conduct is required of all people within its borders, including certain forms of modesty, ritual purification and prayers.
Public backlash to TV reporter 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 have grown quietly amid shared concerns about arch-enemy Iran. This incident is unlikely to dampen the relationship. Publicly, the kingdom insists on its policy is that full commitments are only possible if Palestinian statehood and rights are guaranteed.
The outcry appears to have prompted Saudi police to announce late Friday the arrest of the Saudi man they say facilitated the journalist’s entry into Mecca, in explicit violation of regulations imposed by the Ban entry for non-Muslims. The Saudi national, whose identity has not been released, has been handed over to prosecutors and remains in detention.
The veteran reporter for Channel 13 in Israel filmed himself in Mecca for a roughly 10-minute segment that aired on Monday, during which he visited a key site on the Haj pilgrimage route where Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon about 1,400 years ago.
He made it clear that he knowingly snuck into Mecca with a driver and said that he spoke softly in Hebrew so no one could hear him. He claimed to be the first Israeli Jew to ever set foot in the city. He did not identify himself as Israeli or Jewish during the recordings made to the driver.
In the clip that will be broadcast, Tamary and his Saudi driver pass through a freeway fork that says non-Muslims cannot pass through, and then drive under a giant replica Koran that is the main gate to the city. “The dream came true,” he says as they cross Mecca and make their way to Mount Arafat.
After climbing the mountain, he says the religious police are starting to ask questions and want to make sure he’s a Muslim. You decide to leave.
Islam’s holiest shrine, the cube-shaped Kaaba, is located in Mecca, the metaphorical house of God in the city’s Grand Mosque. The shrine marks the spot where 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 reporter and Channel 13 responded on Twitter after the report aired. The news channel, in both Hebrew and Arabic, said Tamary’s report was driven by “journalistic curiosity” and a desire to witness and see things firsthand. The popular Israeli broadcaster apologized for any anger fueled by its visit, which took place during President Joe Biden’s trip to the nearby city of Jeddah. The Times of Israel, citing an unnamed source familiar with the matter, said Israeli government officials were satisfied with the statements made by the channel and its reporter.
Police in Mecca said they also referred the journalist’s actions to prosecutors, even though the Israeli citizen is no longer in the kingdom.
The Saudi statement did not identify the journalist and only said he was not Muslim and held US citizenship, implying that he had entered the country on his American passport as the kingdom has no formal ties with Israel.
Police urged visitors to respect the country’s laws, particularly regarding Mecca and Islam’s holiest sites in the kingdom.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Ariel Shalit in Jerusalem and Fares Akram in Gaza City contributed to this report.