Top Palestinian official Saeb Erekat accused the Israeli government of “sabotaging international efforts” to reach a peace deal after it held its weekly meeting in a tunnel near the Western Wall on Sunday.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the latest provocation by the Israeli government, holding its weekly [cabinet meeting] in the tunnels beneath Al Aqsa Mosque Compound in Occupied East Jerusalem,” Erekat said, referring to the Temple Mount in the Old City.
The holy site is a flashpoint in the conflict, with both sides very sensitive to any change, real or perceived, to the status quo that exists there. The Temple Mount is the site of the ancient Jewish Temples and thus the holiest place in Judaism, and the third holiest site in Islam.
The weekly cabinet meeting was held at the Western Wall tunnels, adjacent to the Western Wall, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the city’s unification in the Six Day War. At no point were the parliamentarians beneath the actual Temple Mount, known to Arabs as Haram al-Sharif.
Erekat said that by deciding “to mark 50 years of occupation, and the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadan,” with a meeting in the tunnels, Netanyahu was “sending a clear message to the Palestinian people that the systematic violations of their inalienable rights are going to continue.”
The Palestinian negotiator said that holding the meeting in close proximity to the site holy to both Muslims and Jews was sending a message of ongoing “occupation.”
“Today’s meeting in Occupied East Jerusalem is an attempt by the Israeli government to normalize occupation, oppression and colonization over the land and people of Palestine,” he said.
After capturing the Old City and East Jerusalem, Israel annexed them, declaring all of Jerusalem the undivided, eternal capital of Israel, and notes that only under Israeli rule have the Holy Sites been open to all religions.
The main tunnel, which was formed as houses were built over an ancient valley between the Temple Mount and the rest of the city, runs 485 meters (1,600 feet) along the outside of the retaining wall. The entrance is near the Western Wall plaza to a pool at the north-western corner of the Herodian structure. At no point do any of the tunnels go underneath the holy site.
A week after US President Donald Trump visited Israel and the West Bank hoping to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, Erekat called on the international community to pressure Israel over the status of Jerusalem.
“We call upon each country, particularly countries that have had a historic presence, and role in Jerusalem, to assume responsibility including respecting of the status quo the holy sites,” he said.
Netanyahu’s cabinet often holds its weekly meetings away from the Knesset. During Sunday’s meeting in the Western Wall tunnels the cabinet approved a raft of measures, which Netanyahu said would help “strengthen Jerusalem,” while also noting the Jewish people’s millennia-long connection to the site.
On September 24, 1996, a few months after becoming prime minister for the first time, Netanyahu allowed the municipality to break through 80 centimeters of brick and stone to open an exit from the Western Wall tunnels to the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
The late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, who was engaged in ongoing peace negotiations with Netanyahu at the time, declared that the move was a desecration of the Muslim holy site and called on Palestinians to respond with force. Over the next few days, 17 Israelis and 100 Palestinians were killed in intense fighting.