Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

US officials criticised for attending opening of West Bank Israeli settler archaeological site

Officials in the Israel Antiquities Authority criticised the dig as “bad archaeology”

From left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and US Senator Lindsey Graham attend the the inauguration of an archaeological site in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem on June 30, 2019. AFP
From left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and US Senator Lindsey Graham attend the the inauguration of an archaeological site in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem on June 30, 2019. AFP

Two top American officials – United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Middle East Envoy Jacob Greenblatt – attended the inauguration on Sunday of a new archaeological site run by the City of David Foundation (Elad), an Israeli settler group in the heart of disputed and occupied East Jerusalem.

Palestinians criticised their presence, saying it reflected US support of Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem, which would be a significant break with previous US policy that has left Jerusalem’s status up to final negotiations. Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem are illegal under international law.

Mr Friedman, in remarks at the event, denied the charge that his attendance was political or reflected a policy shift, saying that only "the pursuit of truth" was driving the excavations.

One protester was arrested at a demonstration organised by Jewish anti-occupation groups Peace Now and All That’s Left outside the event.

Palestinians call these neighbourhoods Wadi Hilweh and Silwan, while the Israeli government refers to it as the City of David, as the biblical King David is said to have lived here.

Mr Friedman and Mr Greenblatt's attendance sparked controversy after the Palestinian Authority and Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh, which is against the politicisation of archaeology, condemned the move.

“Senior American presence at the event, alongside ministers of the Israeli government, is a political act which is the closest the US will have come to recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Old City basin of Jerusalem,” Emek Shaveh said. “This is a further step in American support for the pro-settlement policy in Jerusalem, and particularly the touristic-settlement projects.”

Mr Greenblatt in turn tweeted out that claims the event was part of the "Judaisation" of Jerusalem were "ludicrous". We can’t 'Judaise' what history/archaeology show."

Prior to the ceremony Mr Friedman told The Jerusalem Post that “I do not believe that Israel would ever consider" giving up Silwan in a peace deal as “the City of David is an essential component of the national heritage of the state of Israel. It would be akin to America returning the Statue of Liberty”.

Tensions between American and Palestinian officials are already high after last week's controversial "Peace for Prosperity" conference in Bahrain that Palestinians boycotted. On Thursday, Mr Greenblatt added fuel to the fire by saying that he preferred to call Israeli settlements “neighbourhoods” and rejected claims that they are an impediment to peace.

“We might get there if people stop pretending settlements, or what I prefer to call ‘neighbourhoods and cities’, are the reason for the lack of peace,” he said at the forum for US-Israel relations in Jerusalem.

The new site, called the Path of the Pilgrims, has ongoing excavation for the last six years through a partnership between Elad and Israeli antiquities and nature and parks authorities. The path follows streets used by pilgrims from the time of the second Jewish temple, according to Elad. The path also connects the City of David National Park, Elad’s signature tourist attraction, to the Pool of Siloam near the entrance to the Jewish Western Wall.

Emek Shaveh, however, said that in the rush to add the new path and narrative, “the horizontal excavation method and the paucity of scientific publications does not enable us to establish with certainty when the road was built and how it fit into the layout of the city of Jerusalem”.

Two top officials in the Israel Antiquities Authority also criticised the excavation as “bad archaeology” and something the authority “could not be proud of” in internal correspondence viewed by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

Palestinian activists and groups like Emek Shaveh, moreover, have condemned Israel’s politicisation of archeological sites and tourism in the area in order to push out Palestinian residents and strengthen Israel’s claims and presence. Elad has additionally been behind efforts to settle Jews in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem by claiming through the legal system that the properties were originally Jewish or by pressuring local residents to sell, sometimes unknowingly through middlemen.

Palestinian residents in Wadi Hilweh claim that the tunnel digging under their homes has caused structural damage to their properties. While there has been no formal study, activist Jawad Siam, who heads the Wadi Silweh Information Centre, told The National this year that the cracks in question only started to appear in the last few years alongside the excavations.

Mr Siam himself is fighting many legal cases and challenging fines against him spanning years of activism. He has started a crowdfunding page online to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs related to settlers successfully acquiring part of his family home.

Updated: July 1, 2019 02:12 PM

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