US envoy Friedman defends sledgehammering open controversial archaeological site

‘No political message was intended,’ ambassador says of his energetic participation at unveiling of City of David’s Pilgrimage Road, which lies beneath Palestinian neighborhood

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Ambassador David Friedman breaks down a specially built wall in front of the Pilgrimage Road, at a ceremony in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, on June 30, 2019. (Facebook/Screen capture)
US Ambassador David Friedman breaks down a specially built wall in front of the Pilgrimage Road, at a ceremony in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, on June 30, 2019. (Facebook/Screen capture)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Monday defended his controversial use of a sledgehammer at the unveiling of a new archaeological site in Jerusalem’s City of David, which lies underneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

“It was the appropriate tool with which to symbolically open a historic underground excavation,” he said of his role in the demolition of a thin wall, purpose-built for the event to formally open the excavated route. “If we were opening a bridge, we’d probably use something else,” he told The Times of Israel.

Friedman also rejected criticism from those who said his attendance at the ceremony at the East Jerusalem site signals US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the contested area.

“The City of David is a once-in-a-century discovery of enormous historical significance to many Americans, as well as Israelis. That’s why I attended. No political message was intended,” he said.

Still, Friedman reiterated his conviction that the Israeli government would never consider handing this part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians in a future peace agreement.

“This is my view, based on the facts. This does not prejudge the outcome of future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

On Sunday evening, Friedman and US special Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, in the presence of Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife and other officials and dignitaries, hammered through the newly erected wall standing in front of the so-called “Pilgrimage Road,” a now-subterranean stairway that was said to have served as a main artery for Jews to the Temple Mount thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists have been excavating at the City of David National Park in the Silwan for the past eight years. The area has several tiny Jewish enclaves.

The ceremony angered the Palestinian Authority, as well as several left-wing Israeli NGOs, which claimed that the opening of the site would further entrench an Israeli presence in eastern parts of the city that Palestinians hope will one day serve as their capital.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) speaks during the opening of an ancient road at the City of David archaeological and tourist site in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem on June 30, 2019. (Tsafrir Abayov/AFP)

The European Union said both Jewish and Palestinian historical ties to Jerusalem should be “recognized and respected,” but stressed its opposition to settlement construction and said its political position on the city remained unchanged.

“The policy of settlement construction and expansion, including in East Jerusalem, is illegal under international law and its continuation, and actions taken in this context, undermine the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.”” the 28-nation bloc said in a statement, which refrained from explicitly condemning the Israeli ceremony.

Jordan, custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, said “Israeli efforts to Judaize the Holy City… risk further inflaming tension.”

The foreign ministry in Ramallah also condemned the “imperialistic Judaization plans,” which it charged were aimed at changing the status quo in the city. It slammed the Trump administration for “fully supporting the imperialistic settlement enterprise led by the far-right in the occupation state.”

On December 6, 2017, when President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he stressed that the US was not taking a position on the “specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”

Responding to criticism from Palestinian officials and Israeli left-wing activists, Friedman also took to Twitter to denounce the “fake news” about his appearance smashing open the wall.

When The Times of Israel asked Friedman about the fact that video footage indicated that the wall he and Greenblatt demolished appeared to be more hefty than cardboard, he replied: “It was mostly if not entirely cardboard — I can tell by the dirt that fell on my suit. The material plainly was not concrete or other permanent material, and once the wall was pierced, it crumbled easily with almost no effort. Had you been there, I’m sure you would agree.”

A spokesperson for the City of David on Monday told The Times of Israel that the wall was actually a “special, easily breakable wall of mud and bricks,” which was built especially for Sunday’s ceremony.

Asked if she would have done things differently after seeing the criticism of the sledgehammer, the spokesperson said she wished the media and others would focus more on the monumental project that was inaugurated, rather than “marginal matters such as hammers and walls.”

Greenblatt also defended his participation, in an interview Sunday with the Walla news website.

“Not dealing with history, or in some cases falsifying history, has never helped the peace process,” he said. “The fact is that this is an important archaeological find that is important to the history of the city of Jerusalem. And pretending that it doesn’t exist not only doesn’t help the peace process, it hurts humanity, because people want to understand history.”

The participation of senior US officials in an event in that part of Jerusalem had nothing to do with sovereignty, but has to do with solely with archaeology, Greenblatt said.

“And whitewashing Jewish history in Jerusalem, or anywhere else, undermines the chances for peace,” he said. “We believe that peace can only be built on truth. We think this is truth. And I understand that it makes people upset and uncomfortable because it’s always been shied away from. This administration takes the opposite approach: we are going to put a spotlight on all of these issues.”

Said Greenblatt: “We are not going to shy away from the truth as we see it, and we think it will have an effect on the peace process. We think that the peace process will either be successful or not, based on this vision, and the abilities of the parties to get together, and to negotiate.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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