US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and White House Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, at an inaugural ceremony on Sunday, hammered through the final wall standing in front of an archaeological tourist site that was dug under Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.
“Whether there was ever any doubt about the accuracy, the wisdom, the propriety of [US] President [Donald] Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I certainly think this lays all doubts to rest,” said Friedman before joining other Israeli and American bigwigs in symbolically breaking down the wall, which led to the “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 Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan for the past eight years. The area has several tiny Jewish enclaves.
The ceremonial event angered the Palestinian Authority, as well as several left-wing Israeli NGOs, which claimed 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.
The Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, tweeted that Friedman, who before becoming the ambassador was a contributor to settlement causes, was himself “an extremist Israeli settler.”
While Trump said his decision in late 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not relate to the borders of the city, which would be determined in a final peace agreement, Sunday’s ceremony appeared to indicate some American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem.
“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 the crowd of nearly 100, among whom were Sara Netanyahu; Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer; former Jerusalem mayor and current Likud MK Nir Barkat; Republican Senator Lindsey Graham; mega-donors Miriam and Sheldon Adelson; and the US ambassadors to Portugal, France and Denmark.
Friedman explained that his decision to attend the excavation event as a US ambassador stemmed from the deep significance Israel’s capital had vis-a-vis American history. “The spiritual underpinnings of our society, the bedrock of our principles in which we honor the dignity of every human life came from Jerusalem,” he said. “This place is as much a heritage of the US as it is a heritage of Israel.”
Speaking shortly after Friedman, Barkat declared — to applause from the US envoy and other members of the crowd — that the latest archaeological find will “hopefully [allow] the world [to] understand why we will never, never divide the city of Jerusalem.”
Several dozen activists from the Peace Now settlement watchdog protested outside the East Jerusalem event. The left-wing NGO has branded the Pilgrimage Road “the controversy tunnel,” adding that it had “caused the evacuation of Palestinian homes in the neighborhood and increased tensions between Palestinian residents and Jewish settlers, who have been acting more intensively than ever in recent years to Judaize the neighborhood, as part of an effort to sabotage the two-state solution.”
Footage from the Peace Now protest showed one activist being detained by police.
https://t.co/U6cBtSjCsg . I hope all The world , including Americans can see this.That is not a U S Ambassador that is an extremist Israeli settler , with Greenblatt, also there,digging underneath Silwan a palestinian town. We should show this to all who participated in Manama.
— Dr. Saeb Erakat الدكتور صائب عريقات (@ErakatSaeb) June 30, 2019
The PA’s foreign ministry released a statement earlier Sunday condemning the “imperialistic Judaization plans,” which it charged were aimed at changing the status quo in the city. It slammed the Trump’s administration for “fully supporting the imperialistic settlement enterprise led by the far-right in the occupation state” over the officials’ participation.
Greenblatt dismissed the criticism as “ludicrous,” adding on Twitter 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.”
The Pilgrimage Road, which ascends from the Pool of Siloam to the Jewish Temple, dates to no earlier than 30-31 CE, during the time of the notorious Roman governor Pontius Pilate. That was the period when Jesus was sentenced to death, City of David archaeologist Nahshon Szanton said in a 2017 video tour of the site.
“Unlike most archaeological digs which begin from the ground down, this excavation was done subterraneously, beneath the hustle and bustle of modern Jerusalem,” Doron Spielman, vice president of the City of David Foundation, wrote in a Times of Israel op-ed on Sunday. “Dozens of fiber optic cable cameras were used to decipher where to excavate, while maps and diagrams made by archaeologists over the last century and a half paved the way forward,” he wrote.
However, Emek Shaveh, a left-wing organization committed to protecting archaeological sites as the shared heritage of all cultures and faiths in the country, disagreed with the City of David findings, saying that although the street is presented as part of the pilgrimage route, “the horizontal excavation method, and the paucity of scientific publication, do not allow us to know for sure when the street was built and how it was integrated into the urban layout of Jerusalem.”
Amanda Borschel-Dan and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.