Former mufti of Jerusalem rails at plan for Trump train stop at Western Wall

Former mufti of Jerusalem rails at plan for Trump train stop at Western Wall

Palestinian cleric Ikrema Sabri says adding US president’s name does not give scheme legitimacy

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. (AP/Joao Silva)
Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. (AP/Joao Silva)

Ikrema Sabri, a senior Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, on Wednesday denounced an Israeli government plan to dig a railway tunnel under Jerusalem’s Old City, passing near sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims — and ending at the Western Wall with a station named after US President Donald Trump.

Palestinians will not accept “any change or act in the occupied territories,” said Sabri, a former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

He said that “giving the name of Trump to this project will not give it any legitimacy. It would be just another implementation of the unacceptable decision of President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s plan, currently in the initial stages, involves constructing two underground stations and excavating over two miles (three kilometers) of tunnel beneath downtown Jerusalem and under the Old City. The project would extend Jerusalem’s soon-to-open high-speed rail line from Tel Aviv to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, left, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. (Israel Bardugo/via JTA)

The route will run close to — but not directly under — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried, and the Temple Mount compound. Previous excavations by Israel near the Temple Mount — the spiritual epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — have sparked violent Palestinian protests.

Because of those sensitivities, the proposal was expected to meet with heavy resistance from the Palestinians, neighboring Arab countries and the international community.

Transportation Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia said Wednesday the project is estimated to cost more than $700 million and, if approved, would take four years to complete.

Katz’s office said the minister advanced the plan in a recent meeting with Israel Railways executives, and has fast-tracked it in the planning committees.

A bridge on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train route, July 2017 (Gidi Avinary/Flash90)

Katz said a high-speed rail station would allow visitors to reach “the beating heart of the Jewish people — the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.” He proposed naming the station after Trump “for his brave and historic decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital” earlier this month.

Despite the likely opposition to the project, Ovadia said he expects the plans to be approved in the coming year, barring major complications. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed line is expected to open next spring.

“There’s no reason why this train won’t be built,” he said. “We already know how to deal with no less difficult opposition.”

Katz has previously proposed other ambitious infrastructure projects, including an artificial island off the coast of the Gaza Strip that would serve as an air and seaport for the Palestinian territory, and a railway connecting Israel with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

In an address earlier this month from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue. He described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

In May, Trump became the first serving US president to visit the Western Wall.

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail project, which is already projected to cost an estimated NIS 7 billion ($1.8 billion) and has been in planning since 2001, is expected to cut travel time to 28 minutes, down from 78 minutes on the old line built during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

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