US envoys wielded hammers on Sunday to break open a new tunnel at a Jewish heritage site in East Jerusalem, signalling Washington's support for Israel's hold over parts of the city that Palestinians seek for a future state, Reuters reports.
Palestinians – who view the project and settlement activities in the Silwan district as moves by Israel to further cement control over areas it captured in the 1967 Middle East war – called the US presence at the event a hostile act.
Two of President Donald Trump's top Middle East advisers – peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – came to the opening of an excavated road that Israeli archaeologists say was used by Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem two millennia ago.
The "Pilgrims' Road" site is part of the City of David, an open-air Jewish archaeological attraction built within Silwan through purchases of Palestinian-owned property that have at times been contested in court.
Israel captured Silwan and neighbouring districts in the 1967 conflict, annexed and settled them, angering foreign powers that back the Palestinians' goal of building a capital there for a future state taking in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Some people, not necessarily friends of ours, are obsessing about my being here," Friedman said at the ceremony, adding the excavation project uncovered "the truth, whether you believe or not … the truth is the only foundation upon which peace will come to this area".
After his speech, Friedman, along with Greenblatt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife Sara and donors to the project, enthusiastically hammered through a wall to open the subterranean path to the holy site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
"This is not a U.S. ambassador, (it) is an extremist Israeli settler, with Greenblatt also there, digging underneath Silwan, a Palestinian town," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat wrote on Twitter.
The project is co-sponsored by a Jewish settlement group and Israel's Antiquities and Nature and Parks authorities.
"Returning the statue of liberty"
Breaking with long-standing US policy and international consensus, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017.
He left open the possibility of a future Palestinian foothold there under a negotiated peace deal.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and the future of Jerusalem has long been at the centre of the Middle East conflict.
The recognition has prompted the Palestinians to snub a Trump administration they accuse of bias on behalf of Israel, which counts all of the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims as its indivisible capital – a status not recognised abroad.
Palestinian officials boycotted a US-led conference in Bahrain last week which Washington said was meant to lay the economic foundations for peace with Israel.
Friedman, asked in a Jerusalem Post interview published on Sunday if he saw Israel one day agreeing to Palestinian control of Silwan as part of a peace deal, said: "It would be akin to America returning the Statue of Liberty."
In addition to Jerusalem, Palestinians fret that Washington will give a green light to a possible move by Israel to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"The truth is, (Friedman and Greenblatt) are settlers trying very hard to implement the (Israeli) settlers council plan. Annexation," Erekat tweeted.
Greenblatt told a Jerusalem conference sponsored by the conservative Israel Hayom conference last week that diplomatic progress might be possible "if people stop pretending (Israeli) settlements – or what I like to call neighbourhoods and cities – are the reason for the lack of peace".