U.S. Envoys Break Open Tunnel Running Under Palestinian Village in East Jerusalem

Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt says Palestinians' criticism of move, seen as another step by the Trump administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, is 'ludicrous'

Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt, flanked by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, breaks ground in a tunnel running under a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem, June 30, 2019
Screen capture from "City of David" Facebook page

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt broke open a new tunnel running under a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem during a ceremony inaugurating a settler archaeological project.

The ceremony, inaugurating the “Path of the Pilgrims” in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, was organized by the settler organization Elad.

The decision of the senior American diplomats to attend the Sunday event is seen as another move by the Trump administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, which previous U.S. administrations have avoided.

Among those attending were also casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson, and Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Likud MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barakat and Interim Education Minister Rafi Peretz of the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

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Friedman and Graham at the ceremony, Silwan, June 30, 2019.
Emil Salman

Regarding his presence at the event as a representative of the United States, Friedman said it was especially appropriate this week, as America celebrates its Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

U.S. envoys can be seen breaking open the tunnel at the 1:04:20 minute mark

The document, he said, "recognized that each every human being has inalienable rights endowed by our creator. They're not granted by Republicans, they're not granted by Democrats, they're not granted by governments, they're inalienable rights that belong to every human being and they are gifts and entitlements granted by god.

"And how would our founding fathers know what those rights were?" he continued. "The answer is, among other things, they read the bible… And where did the words of the bible come from?" He asked.

"The spiritual underpinnings of our society…those words came from Jerusalem. That's 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."

Sara Netanyahu at a ceremony, June 30, 2019.
Emil Salman

Friedman continued, "Everything I said is simply another way of saying I want to tell the truth... This, this is the truth," he said, referring to the archeological findings. "Whether you believe it or not, the people that discovered this – these are largely secular archaeologists, scientists, no particular agenda – this is the truth. And truth is the only foundation on which peace will come to this area."

In a tweet Sunday, Greenblatt said the Palestinian Authority "claims our attendance at this historic event supports 'Judaization' of Jerusalem/is an act of hostility vs. Palestinians. Ludicrous. We can’t 'Judaize' what history/archeology show. We can acknowledge it & you can stop pretending it isn’t true! Peace can only be built on truth."

The “Path of the Pilgrims” is an excavation of a large underground archeological site that has been going on for the last six years in collaboration between the Elad Association, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority.

The excavation was conducted through a tunnel, upheld by large iron beams under the streets and homes in the Wadi Hiweh/City of David neighborhood in Silwan, not far from the Dung Gate of the Old City.

The dig runs along a route of streets from the time of the second temple that runs from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount.

The City of David archaeological site in Silwan, East Jerusalem, January 2019.
© Amnesty International

The ceremony is the second time the site is inaugurated. The first time was two and a half years ago. Culture Minister Miri Regev took part in the first ceremony, and took advantage of the opportunity to attack the previous U.S. president, Barack Obama.

“Mr. President Barack Obama,” Regev said, “I am standing here, on the road my father’s fathers walked upon thousands of years ago. There is no other nation in the world with an attachment to their land like this. Not the Ukrainians, not the New Zealanders, not the English. There is no nation in the world that has a connection to their land like the Jewish people have to the land of Israel.”

The excavation of the street, which has been called the terraced street or the Herodian street (there are doubts regarding dating the street to the time of King Herod), is the flagship project of the Elad Association. Its completion will allow visitors to the City of David National Park, which is managed by the organization, to walk through the underground passage from the Pool of Siloam and emerge near the Western Wall.

The underground digging in Silwan has been reviewed at length by the authorities from a scientific standpoint. About three months after the first inauguration, Haaretz revealed that two high level officials in the IAA, Dr. Jon Seligman, head of excavations and surveys, and Dr. Gideon Avni, who heads the organization’s archeological division, sharply criticized the excavations. In internal correspondence revealed by Haaretz, they wrote that the work being done in the tunnels, contrary to accepted practice, was “bad archaeology,” and added that “the authority could not be proud of this excavation.”

In response to the inauguration ceremony, J Street Israel director Yael Patir released a statement saying: "When the U.S. ambassador takes part, alongside radical right-wing members, in breaking walls that run under houses in the Palestinian village of Silwan, he only strengthens the walls of distrust between the Trump administration and the Palestinians.

"An administration that presented [an economic] plan in Bahrain, and shortly after shattered it in Silwan, doesn't really seek peace and doesn't really want to serve as mediator," Patir said.  

Residents of Silwan have been complaining for years about damages to their homes caused by the excavation of the tunnel. Residents pointed to cracks in the walls of homes above the tunnel. In one rainstorm last winter, there was a collapse of several meters of a parking lot owned by a Palestinian resident into the pit at the entrance to the tunnel.