The US Ambassador to Israel inaugurated a contentious archaeological dig in Jerusalem Sunday, in an act which a senior Palestinian official described as that of an “extremist Israeli settler.”
David Friedman, along with White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Israeli Prime Minister, were among those present at the inauguration of the Pilgrimage Road site, in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, whose population is overwhelmingly Palestinian.
Pilgrimage Road is part of a large archaeological dig in the area, which lies just to the south of the Old City, known as The City of David.
Israeli archaeologists say it is the ancient road used by Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Temple Mount around two millennia ago. Advocates of the project say it continues to unearth new discoveries about the history of Jerusalem at the end of what is known as the Second Temple period.
Friedman and others wielded sledgehammers to break through a wall and open up a tunnel, dug over the last six years and said to run along the route of Pilgrimage Road.
Speaking at the ceremony, Friedman called Pilgrimage Road “one of the great archaeological discoveries” and said it vindicated US President Donald Trump.
“Were there any doubts 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,” Friedman said.
The US diplomat also responded to what he described as questions over his participation.
“The spiritual creation, the spiritual underpinnings of [American] society, the bedrock of our principles in which we honor the dignity of every human life, those words came from Jerusalem. That is an American heritage. This place is as much a heritage of the United States as it is a heritage of Israel and it illustrates better than anything I could ever say just why the bond between the United States and the state of Israel is so broad, so deep and so unbreakable.”
Palestinians slammed the event as further proof of the US’ total support for Israel’s hold on all Jerusalem, including those parts of the city which they hope will one day be part of a Palestinian state.
Saeb Erakat, Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Secretary General, wrote on Twitter: “I hope all the world including Americans can see this. That is not a US 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,” referencing the capital of Bahrain, where the White House sponsored a meeting last week about development of the Palestinian economy.
Critics, which include the Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh, which works “to defend cultural heritage rights,” see the archaeological project in Silwan and others as driven by politics, as “part of a strategy to shape the historic city and unilaterally entrench Israeli sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem.”
A senior level European diplomat who didn’t want to be named and who is based in the region was critical of the US role in Sunday’s inauguration event.
“The presence of Friedman and Greenblatt today was a further example of how the Trump Administration is tone-deaf to the sensitivities of Palestinians. It will be seen as an endorsement of controversial plans advanced by the settler Elad organization that serve to erode the Palestinian character of East Jerusalem,” the European diplomat told CNN, referencing an organization which sponsored the inauguration and seeks to increase the number of Israeli settlements across East Jerusalem.