Looking at the photos of American Ambassador David Friedman, the prime minister's wife Sara Netanyahu and David Be’eri, the director of the right-wing Elad foundation, all swinging sledgehammers to break down an underground wall to inaugurate a settlement project in the Silwan neighborhood of Arab East Jerusalem, one cannot help but be reminded of similar photos taken 23 years ago.
Then, at the end of Yom Kippur, a similar group had gathered: an American patron of the settlers (then it was Irving Moskowitz, now it’s Sheldon Adelson); an Israeli politician (then it was Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, now a former mayor, Nir Barkat); the head of a right-wing organization (then it was Mati Dan, now it’s Be’eri); the prime minister’s wife and her stylist Nicol Raidman – that one is a new development.
In 1996, the participants, equipped with sledgehammers and pick-axes, broke an underground wall to create an additional exit from the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. The Palestinian street and the fledgling Palestinian Authority responded with violence. After a few days there were 117 fatalities, including 17 Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The person who planned Sunday’s scenario probably remembered the earlier one, and perhaps was trying to make a point.
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So far – and there’s no reason to believe this will change – the ceremony and breaking of the wall (which was, incidentally, organized especially to mark the occasion) have passed without incident. Palestinian society today is not the same as it was in 1996. The location of the wall, 800 meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is not the same as the exit from the tunnels. This time, even the greatest conspiracy theorists among Palestinians will find it hard to argue that this action threatens the mosques on Temple Mount. The Palestinian street in Jerusalem has learned to absorb humiliations as long as they don’t impinge on Al-Aqsa.
But the fact that the event in Silwan passed relatively quietly does not mean that it was unimportant. In fact, it was so astounding that one has to pause and reflect on the strange period we’re living in, where an event like this passes with almost no media or public interest in Israel or overseas. Stop for a minute and watch the U.S. ambassador to Israel, one of the closest people to the American president, standing there with a sledgehammer beside far-right-wing activists, the excitement visible on his face, breaking down a wall as part of a ceremony inaugurating a “Pilgrimage Road” to the Temple. And all of this is taking place under a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem, an area which is not recognized as being under Israeli sovereignty.
That photo op with the sledgehammers confirms all the Palestinians’ concerns over Trump not only not being an impartial mediator, but having the same positions as those of the Israeli extreme right. Even worse, the wall-breaking demonstrates a total disconnect from reality. Despite the high emotions of the participants and the large banner behind them, in which the houses of Silwan have been effaced, they were after all in a large Palestinian village of 20,000 – and no more than 500 Jewish residents. The “Pilgrimage Road” they celebrated ultimately leads to the Temple Mount, and there, despite the moving videos shown during the evening, stand the mosques – and not a temple.
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The willingness of the U.S. administration to ignore all of this and wave hammers in the faces of the Palestinians, without giving any thought to the future of the people who live here, is cause for grave concern.