Palestinians are outraged after high profile American officials participated in the inauguration of a disputed tunnel in occupied East Jerusalem on Sunday.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and White House Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt were all smiles as they hammered down the last remaining wall standing in front of the controversial “Pilgrimage Road” tunnel.
Dozens of anti-occupation activists affiliated with Peace Now, an Israeli NGO that monitors settlement activity in the occupied territories, protested outside the event. Video of the protest posted on social media shows Israeli police violently detaining some demonstrators.
Happening now: As US Ambassador David Friedman and Mideast Envoy Jason Greenblatt celebrate the opening of a new settler project in East Jerusalem, Israeli forces violently arrest anti-occupation protesters (h/t @ATLCol) pic.twitter.com/Vk49ze3EDR
— Joshua Leifer (@joshualeifer) June 30, 2019
The tunnel project, sponsored by the right-wing settler organization Elad, has been under construction for the past eight years, and runs directly under the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, adjacent to the Old City.
Israeli archaeologists claim the tunnel was once an important thoroughfare, dating to Roman rule, used by worshipers some 2,000 years ago to reach the ancient Jewish temple. The tourist attraction claims to give visitors a chance to emulate the pilgrimage from the “Shiloah Pool” or Birkat al-Hamra in Arabic, all the way to the Western Wall.
“It confirms with evidence, with science, with archaeological studies that which many of us already knew, certainly in our heart: the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people,” Friedman told a crowd of over 100 people, including top tier Israeli and US officials, according to the Times of Israel.
“This place is as much a heritage of the US as it is a heritage of Israel,” Friedman said.
Fakhri Abu Diab, a local activist and neighborhood spokesperson in Silwan spoke to Mondoweiss, saying that his community was outraged by the “provocative” performance of Friedman and Greenblatt at the event.
“The ambassador is sending a clear message to us Palestinians: that he wants to kill off any peace negotiations before they can even start,” Abu Diab said. “This could not come at a worse time, especially as the Americans are trying to peddle their Zionist ‘peace plans’ to us.”
The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) top negotiator Saeb Erekat published a series of scathing tweets on social media, including one that said Friedman was not an Ambassador, but rather “an extremist settler.”
This is not making history .It is a day of infamy and disgrace in the history of American diplomacy . One day the US will say that Friedman and Greenblatt were not American diplomates, they were extremist fanatic Israeli settlers.Who did a lot of damage to US interests and image
— Dr. Saeb Erakat الدكتور صائب عريقات (@ErakatSaeb) June 30, 2019
“Greenblatt and Friedman are advancing prosperity for the settlers, for a racist colonial settlement enterprise. Today they’ll once again insult international law by blessing a project of settlers that has dispossessed dozens of Palestinian families nearby Al Aqsa Mosque compound,” Erekat tweeted.
Senior PLO official Dr. Hanan Ashrawi also tweeted out her criticisms, saying “Complicity & collusion. U.S. officials are part of the illegal settler enterprise & #IsraeliCrimes.”
— Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) June 30, 2019
In a statement, Peace Now criticized the event as American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the occupied territory, saying that the tunnel project was “part of the transformation of Silwan into a Disneyland of the messianic extreme right wing in Israel and the United States.”
“The Trump Team chooses to strengthen the hold of the settler fringe in the sensitive area of the Holy Basin instead of advancing a conflict-ending peace agreement,” the group said. “The tunnel, the way it was dug and its geo-political ramifications, are trampling on the reputation of Jerusalem as a city sacred to all religions and belonging to all its inhabitants.”
Greenblatt responded to criticisms of the event on Twitter, saying “We can’t ‘Judaise’ what history/archaeology show. We can acknowledge it and you can stop pretending it isn’t true! Peace can only be built on truth.”
A part of the larger City of David National Park tourist attraction, Pilgrimage Road is just one of several archaeological projects in East Jerusalem that has been used by the Israeli government to justify the presence of hundreds of Israeli settlers illegally residing in Silwan and surrounding Palestinian neighborhoods.
In the days leading up to the event, Friedman sat down for an interview with the Jerusalem Post, during which he hailed the City of David as a great example “of the recognition of the Judeo-Christian values upon which both nations [Israel and America] were founded.”
He even likened the City of David in Jerusalem to America’s Statue of Liberty.
Local Palestinian and Israeli activists, however, maintain that the excavations carried out by the Israeli government and settler groups are unreliable.
Emek Shaveh is a left-wing Israeli NGO that, according to its website, works “to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples.”
In a press release on Friday, the group said that while the road was being presented as part of an ancient pilgrimage route, it was being done so “in spite of the fact that the horizontal excavation method and the paucity of scientific publications does not enable us to establish with certainty when the road was built and how it fit into the layout of the city of Jerusalem.”
Middle East Eye reported that it spoke last year to a local guide who said “the excavations have not found one single artifact from the King David era, which dates back 3,000 years.”
“What has been found are artifacts from various extinct empires, mainly Arab and Muslim, which have controlled Jerusalem over the centuries,” MEE reported.
Abu Diab echoed that point, saying that the Israeli archaeologists “destroy and discard any evidence that contradicts their political narrative. They are not interested in historical truth, only in furthering their Jewish claims to our lands.”
He went on to highlight the damaging effects the extensive underground excavations have had on his community.
Abu Diab confirmed MEE’s report that the excavations have caused immense cracks in the walls and floors of homes in Silwan located directly above the tunnels.
“The houses in Silwan could fall apart at any time. There are a whole network of tunnels under the ground. Our houses are being attacked above ground by the settlers and bulldozers, and underground by the archaeologists and the excavators,” Abu Diab said.
Like countless other Palestinian activists, Abu Diab believes the Israeli government “has been using archaeology as a cover and an excuse for their political goals” in Jerusalem. “They want to kick us Palestinians out and replace us with Jewish settlers.”
Emek Shaveh made similar remarks in its statement on Friday:
“The use of archaeology by Israel and the settlers as a political tool is a part of a strategy to shape the historic city and unilaterally entrench Israeli sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem. It is a process which is likely to produce devastating results for both Israel and the Palestinians. It is inexcusable to ignore the Palestinian residents of Silwan, carrying out extensive excavations of an underground city and to use such excavations as part of an effort to tell a historic story that is exclusively Jewish in a 4,000 year-old city with a rich and diverse cultural and religious past.”
As for Friedman’s claims that the tunnel project solidified Israeli claims to the city, Abu Diab had this to say to the ambassador: “We Palestinians, the natives of this land, ignore all of these statements. There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living on these lands for centuries.” No one, he said, “can never erase our heritage and culture from this land.”