The Palestine Liberation Organization is demanding international intervention, after accusing the United States of ‘committing war crimes’ following the participation of two of President Donald Trump’s top Middle East advisers in the inauguration of a Jewish heritage site in East Jerusalem.
Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt attended the opening of an excavated road that Israeli archaeologists have identified as the route taken by Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem two millennia ago. Friedman and Greenblatt wielded hammers along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara and project donors that broke through a wall to open an underground passage leading to the Temple Mount in the Old City – revered as the holiest site in Judaism where both Biblical Temples once stood. On top of the ancient ruins, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam – which in recent years has been one of the biggest flashpoints of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The “Pilgrims’ Road” is part of the City of David, an open-air Jewish archaeological attraction and built within the East Jerusalem district of Silwan through purchases of Palestinian-owned property, that have at times been contested in court.
It is important to note that Israel legally annexed Silwan and other neighboring districts it captured in the 1967 Six Day War, on lands the Palestinians demand for the capital of a future state. Breaking with long-standing policy and international consensus, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem in its entirety as Israel’s capital in December 2017. Although he left open the possibility of a future Palestinian foothold in the eastern sector under a negotiated peace deal – the “Pilgrim Road” ceremony appeared to signal further U.S. recognition of permanent Israeli sovereignty over the city.
Friedman told those gathered that “whether there was ever any doubt about the accuracy, the wisdom, the propriety of President Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I certainly think this lays all doubts to rest.” He then went on to say “it confirms with evidence, with science, with archaeological studies that which many of us already new, certainly in our heart: the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people.” Others in attendance included Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the American ambassadors to Portugal, France and Denmark, and major American financial supporter Sheldon Adelson. Friedman also said that “this place is as much a heritage of the U.S. as it is a heritage of Israel,” based on “the spiritual underpinnings of [American] society, the bedrock of our principles in which we honor the dignity of every human life came from Jerusalem.”
Former Jerusalem mayor and current Likud Knesset Member Nir Barkat then declared that the stunning archaeological discovery will “hopefully [allow] the world [to] understand why we will never, never divide the city of Jerusalem.”
The Palestinian Authority views the Jewish heritage project and related activities in Silwan as moves by Israel to further cement its control of the area, and that Trump Administration policy only serves to fan the flames of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry released a condemnatory statement, that it “views the American attendance at and celebration of imperialistic Judaization plans in occupied East Jerusalem as hostile acts against the Palestinians.” Greenblatt responded in a tweet that such criticism was “ludicrous,” in that “we can’t ‘Judaize’ what history/archaeology show. We can acknowledge it; you can stop pretending it isn’t true! Peace can only be built on truth.”
Among other scathing reaction, Chief P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat tweeted that Ambassador Friedman was “an extremist Israeli settler.” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh blasted Friedman for “very irresponsible behavior” referencing his “Pilgrim’s Road” presence as well as earlier statements asserting Israel’s right to annex parts of the West Bank including the Jordan Valley. After claiming the U.S. Ambassador “actually contributes to the escalation of violence in the region,” Shtayyeh demanded he be fired from his post.
In his own response as to his presence at the inaugural ceremony, Friedman said “why I am here? why I am here? I am an American, I am an American citizen, I am the United States Ambassador to Israel, my job is to represent the United States of America. Why would an American ambassador come to this event and speak at this event?”
“Some people, not necessarily friends of ours, are obsessing about my being here,” Friedman said, adding the excavation project uncovered “the truth, whether you believe or not.” He then insisted that the acceptance of historical fact is critical to any eventual resolution to the decades-old dispute, stressing: “the people that discovered this, these are largely secular archaeologists, scientists – no particular agenda. This is the truth, and the truth is the only foundation upon which peace will come to this area.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and the future of Jerusalem has long been at the center of the Middle East conflict. U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city has prompted the Palestinians to reject a White House they allege is biased toward Israel – which counts all of the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims as its indivisible capital.
This animosity drove Palestinian officials to boycott the U.S.-led conference in Bahrain last week, where Washington unveiled economic foundations for ‘Palestinian prosperity’ it hoped would foster peace with Israel. Moreover, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Movement called for an increase of attacks against Israelis during the workshop; and one of the few Palestinians to defy the official boycott, prominent Hebron businessman Saleh Abu Mayala, was arrested upon his return from Manama.