US officials attend Israeli settler-linked event in Jerusalem

Jerusalem (AFP) –


US officials attended an archaeological event organised by an Israeli settler-linked group in east Jerusalem on Sunday, their latest move breaking with precedent and angering Palestinians.

White House adviser Jason Greenblatt and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman were among US officials present at the event marking the completion of an archaeological project next to the Old City in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.

Greenblatt and Friedman, who gave a speech at the ceremony organised by the City of David Foundation, dismissed accusations it was a further acknowledgement of Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem.

They called it a historic moment unveiling an ancient road the foundation says was a pilgrimage route to the second Jewish temple some 2,000 years ago.

US Senator Lindsey Graham was also in attendance, as were three US ambassadors to other countries and Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, backers of the US Republican party as well as Jewish and Israeli causes.

The wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sara Netanyahu, attended as well.

"Were there ever any doubt about the accuracy, the wisdom, the propriety of President (Donald) Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I certainly think this lays all doubts to rest," Friedman said in his speech of the archaeological findings.

He said that "some people ?- not necessarily friends of ours ?- are obsessing about my being here", but described American values as originating from biblical texts and "those words came from Jerusalem".

Friedman was later first to ceremonially help break down a wall with a sledgehammer leading to the ancient road, now underground in a tunnel.

Some 350 metres of the road, which runs around 600 metres, have been exposed and it is expected to be opened to the public at a later date, organisers said.

- 'A political act' -

Work took place in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in the eastern sector of the disputed city.

Palestinians accuse Israel and the foundation of seeking to push them out of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned "in the strongest terms the colonialist plans to replace the existing reality in occupied Jerusalem and the environs of the Old City".

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli group that opposes the "politicisation" of archaeology, also condemned the American presence, calling it "a political act which is the closest the US will have come to recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Old City basin of Jerusalem".

Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

It sees the entire city as its capital while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

The foundation oversees activities in Israel's City of David national park in east Jerusalem that seek to demonstrate the connection between Jewish history and the city.

Trump in 2017 broke with decades of precedent by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The White House later cut hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid and closed the Palestinians' de facto embassy in Washington, among other steps.

Last week, it organised an economic conference in Bahrain meant to kickstart a long-awaited Middle East peace effort, but the Palestinians boycotted it.

Friedman has been a supporter of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and Greenblatt last week said he preferred to call them "neighbourhoods and cities" rather than settlements.

Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank are viewed as illegal under international law and major obstacles to peace since they are located on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israel says Palestinian violence, incitement and the intransigence of their leaders are the main reasons for the lack of progress in peace efforts.