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U.S. officials participate in controversial inauguration of East Jerusalem tunnel

David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt and Lindsey Graham
Ambassador David Friedman (L), White House envoy Jason Greenblatt (C) and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Photo: Tsafrir Abayov/AFP/Getty Images

Together with Israeli officials, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, senior White house officials and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took part Sunday in the opening of a tunnel that runs under the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem to the Old City, very close to the Temple Mount.

Why it matters: This is an extraordinary event, as the digging of the tunnel was initiated by a Jewish settler group called Elad. For decades, U.S. government officials refrained from participating in Israeli government events in East Jerusalem — not to mention those led by settler groups.

  • The tunnel is located in a highly sensitive area of Jerusalem called "The Holy Basin," which includes Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.
  • In 1996, when Netanyahu was in his first term as prime minister, the opening of a tunnel near the Western Wall led to riots across the West Bank and Gaza that ended with 17 Israelis and 100 Palestinians dead.   

The tunnel is part of a major archaeological project pushed by Elad, which aims to settle Jews in a part of East Jerusalem called "the City of David." The tunnel is called "The pilgrimage road" and is located in the same place where the ancient road that led to the Jewish Temple used to be 2,000 years ago.

  • The ceremony was attended by Netanyahu’s wife and two ministers in the Israeli Cabinet, as well as Friedman, Graham, White House envoy Jason Greenblatt and national security council Middle East director Victoria Coates.
  • Other prominent guests included casino mogul and Trump donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam. The U.S. ambassadors to France, Portugal and Denmark, and State Department envoy for fighting antisemitism Elan Carr, also attended the ceremony.

Friedman was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. He said that the founding of the U.S. was based on the bible and that for this reason, the tunnel is a U.S. heritage site as much as it is an Israeli heritage site.

  • Friedman added that the historic site tells the truth about the connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem and claimed that speaking the truth will help the region achieve peace.
  • After the speeches, Friedman, Greenblatt, Graham, Sara Netanyahu and several other guests took heavy hammers and broke a wall to open the tunnel. For several minutes, they hit the wall with the hammers until it was completely torn down.

What they're saying: The Palestinians condemned the U.S. participation at the ceremony, alleging the Trump administration is helping Israel "Judaize" East Jerusalem and "legalize colonial practices in Jerusalem by using a religious cover." The Palestinian Authority announced it would ask the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to intervene and that it would consult with Jordan on how to respond.

  • PLO official Saeb Erekat said: "That is not a U.S. 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."

Go deeper: Bahrain official says Palestinians made a mistake by skipping peace conference