Gil Tamary of Israel's Channel 13 was in Jeddah covering US President Joe Biden's visit but flouted rules and entered Islam’s holiest city, filming what his channel calls "an important journalistic accomplishment".
An Israeli journalist has sparked controversy after publishing a video of himself sneaking into the Saudi city of Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, flouting a ban on non-Muslims.
The video by Gil Tamary, who works for Israel's Channel 13, continued to draw hostile reactions on Saudi social media on Wednesday, two days after Tamary posted it on Twitter.
In his roughly 10-minute clip, Tamary visits Mount Arafat, where robed Muslim pilgrims gather to pray during the climax of the Haj pilgrimage each year.
He makes clear he knows what he's doing is outlawed, referring to the site as "a place forbidden to non-Muslims" and declaring, "I am the first Israeli journalist on the spot to broadcast these images and in Hebrew."
Accompanied by a person who appears to be a local guide and whose face is blurred to prevent his identification, Tamary lowers his voice while speaking to the camera in Hebrew, and at times switches to English to avoid revealing he is Israeli.
Responding to the outcry on Tuesday, Tamary said he wanted merely to "showcase the importance of Mecca" and the beauty of Islam, while claiming the video "allowed many people to see, for the first time, a place that is so important to our Muslim brothers and sisters".
Yet a host of international and Saudi media outlets published extensive coverage from Mecca during the Haj pilgrimage less than two weeks ago.
Channel 13 apologised but stood by its report.
"The visit of our world news editor Gil Tamari to Mecca is an important journalistic accomplishment, which was not meant to offend Muslims," it said in a statement.
“We apologise if anyone was offended. To clarify: journalistic curiosity is the very soul of the journalist profession. The principles of journalism are rooted in reaching any location and documenting events firsthand."
This Israeli journalist snuck into Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, despite an entry ban for non-Muslims pic.twitter.com/cACLnVgZf3— TRT World (@trtworld) July 20, 2022
'Shame for journalism'
Tamary's attempt to justify the video did no impact and didn't quieten the backlash.
A hashtag that translates as "A Jew at the holy mosque" has been trending on Twitter, where one user on Wednesday urged Saudi authorities not to "injure the Islamic nation... by allowing Jews to desecrate the city of the Messenger of God".
Even Twitter accounts that have promoted diplomatic normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia decried Tamary's report as a "shame", as did some of his fellow Israeli journalists.
"There are things that must be said: what Gil Tamary did is a shame for journalism," Yoav Limor, another Israeli journalist who recently visited the kingdom, said on Twitter.
"My dear friends in Israel, a journalist of yours entered the city of Mecca, holy to Islam, and filmed there shamelessly," Mohammed Saud, a pro-Israel Saudi activist said on Twitter.
"Shame on you Channel 13, for hurting the religion of Islam like that. You are rude."
"I'm sorry (but) it was a stupid thing to do and take pride in," Israel's regional cooperation minister Esawi Freij, who is Muslim, told public broadcaster Kan. "It was irresponsible and damaging to air this report just for the sake of ratings."
Freij said the report hurt US-encouraged efforts to gradually move Israel and Saudi Arabia toward more normal ties, similar to the 2020 diplomatic deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Israeli TV sends a Jewish Israeli reporter into the Holy Shrine in Mecca, Islam's holiest site which by Islamic jurisprudence is only allowed for Muslims. This is after repeated Israeli assaults on Islam's third holiest site, in Jerusalem. Do they realize what they're doing? https://t.co/eqvWdIgkZM— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) July 19, 2022
Lifting flight curbs
Tamary was in Jeddah covering Biden's visit on Friday.
It was unclear whether authorities had approved his Mecca journey, for which he later apologised, saying he had not intended to offend Muslims.
Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel and did not join the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords that saw Israel establish ties with two of the kingdom's neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Several Israeli journalists who hold foreign passports were nonetheless able to visit Saudi Arabia both before and during US President Joe Biden's tour of the Middle East last week.
The Saudi civil aviation authority announced on Friday it was lifting overflight restrictions on "all carriers", paving the way for Israeli planes to use Saudi airspace.
But the Saudi foreign minister later said the move had "nothing to do" with Israel and was "not in any way a precursor to any further steps" towards normalisation.
Riyadh has repeatedly said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not establishing official ties with Israel until the conflict with Palestine is resolved.