The Disputed Tunnel in Silwan Inaugurated with American Support

On Sunday, 30 June 2019, representatives of the Trump administration Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Special Representative Jason Greenblatt will participate with Israeli government ministers in inaugurating a new tunnel under the houses of residents in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan.

When asked about how this move in one of the most contentious areas of the conflict will impact a future peace deal, Friedman answered, “I do not believe that Israel would ever consider such a thought. 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.”

Peace Now: “This is no less than American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the sensitive area of the Holy Basin, contrary to the American position throughout the years since 1967. The Trump Team chooses to strengthen the hold of the settler fringe in the sensitive area of ​​the Holy Basin instead of advancing a conflict-ending peace agreement. The tunnel, the way it was dug and its geo-political ramifications,  are trampling on the reputation of Jerusalem as a city sacred to all religions and belonging to all its inhabitants. It is part of the transformation of Silwan into a Disneyland of the messianic extreme right wing in Israel and the United States – just steps from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount.”

חפירת המנהרה בסילוואן, 2016

The disputed tunnel is a controversial and poorly regulated archaeological dig that has been carried out in recent years at the initiative of the Elad settler association under the houses of the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, dozens of meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount. The tunnel, about 850 meters long and 8 meters wide, was intended to expose an ancient street from the Roman period that led from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount. It passes under the houses of the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood, running under the wall of the Old City and ending south of the Western Wall plaza.

The Government of Israel invested at least NIS 40 million in the project under the title “Pilgrimage Road,” a reference to the Jews who lived during the Second Temple Period. According to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, anyone who visits the tunnel “knows exactly who is the landlord of this city.” This statement hints in no uncertain terms that this project is meant to solidify Israeli control over the Holy Basin despite the area being one of the core issues in the conflict, to be left to final status negotiations, for which success rests on Jerusalem being a capital for both Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Damage to Houses
The tunnel is being dug about 3 to 4 meters below the homes of the residents of Silwan. Since the digging of the tunnel began, cracks have opened in many houses, there have been collapses, and holes have opened in the excavation area. About five Palestinian families were forced to leave their homes because of the damage caused to them and the municipality’s subsequent decision that the buildings were dangerous.

It should be noted that when contractors excavate underground tunnels, they are required to undergo extensive engineering approvals and close supervision to ensure that there will be no harm to the ground and buildings above them. By contrast, in Silwan, where digging occurs 3m below the houses, the Elad Association and the Antiquities Authority are satisfied with the instructions of their internal engineer, without any external supervision, since it is an archaeological excavation that does not require a building permit.

Controversial to Archeologists

The excavation is also controversial from an archeological standpoint. Documents from the Antiquities Authority revealed by the Emek Shaveh NGO show that senior officials at the Israel Antiquities Authority disavowed the excavation, calling it “bad archeology,” and that it found faults and safety problems, mainly because the excavation was done “from the side” in the tunnel. Archaeological excavations are always carried out from top to bottom, layer by layer, enabling the study of their findings and precise connection to each time period. Excavation “from the side” disregards all the layers and the full context of the findings and it is liable to damage these findings.

Moreover, from a scientific and historical point of view, this Herodian street was known to researchers from the early 20th century in excavations conducted in Silwan. The digging of this tunnel was intended to expose the street to the public, in opposition to the excavation that was intended to study and investigate the archeology. The decision to expose the street means not only the removal of thousands of tons of dirt from the ground, but also the dismantling of findings in order to expose others.

Politically Contentious
The tunnel was dug in one of the most politically sensitive areas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh in Silwan is located next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount compound and the Old City, where the remains of ancient Jerusalem are located (hence the nickname “City of David”). This neighborhood is where the reality of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem under Israeli control since 1967, and of an Israeli settlement in the heart of the neighborhood since the early 90’s meets all the national, religious, and symbolic elements of the conflict. Unstable and unresolved, the Jerusalem Old City and its surrounding can be described as the conflict’s active core.

The compromise in Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution is well known: the Palestinian neighborhoods will be part of a Palestinian capital (Al-Quds), the Israeli neighborhoods will be part of the capital of Israel (Yerushalayim), and the Old City and the historical sites in its vicinity will be subject to a special arrangement.

The Israeli government has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in recent years in building touristic settlements to change the public domain in the Old City and Holy Basin in order to make it more “Israeli,” and to strengthen Israelis’ sense of ownership to this space, in order to prevent a political compromise.

The political sensitivity around Silwan and tunneling is not new. In September 1996, shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected prime minister, he opened an exit from the Western Wall tunnels adjacent to the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif, provoking the “tunnel intifada” in which 15 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians were killed.

In September 2009, shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the second time, he planned to visit Silwan and inaugurate the “drainage canal,” a narrow tunnel much smaller than the current tunnel under Silwan. The news of the prime minister’s arrival reached the ear of the White House, and the Obama administration made it clear to Netanyahu that the act was undesirable, to say the least, and the event was canceled. (About a month later, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Israel, Netanyahu exposed the story while denying his intention to inaugurate a tunnel. And yet, the exposure confirmed that he had intended to reach Silwan and that the plan had been foiled).

The excavation of the tunnels, including under residential buildings, reinforces Palestinian fears of attempts by Israel to build under Palestinian East Jerusalem, and of an Israeli takeover from the tunnels to Al-Aqsa. The fact that the uncovered tunnel in Silwan was intended to reconstruct the path taken by Jewish pilgrims to the Temple, where one of the holiest sites in Islam is located today, adds a deeper symbolic dimension to the tunnel and its inauguration.

The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, defined this clearly: The excavations were meant to teach the world that the Jews are the owners of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and its surroundings in Jerusalem. In a tour for Likud members in August 2016, Barkat described the ambitious plans in Silwan and the exposure of “Pilgrimage Road:”

“Jews who would come to Jerusalem for pilgrimage . . . would enter the purification inside the largest mikvah in the world that is the Siloam Pool, and from there they would climb and ascend the steps towards the Temple Mount. We have begun to reveal these steps, it is still not open to the public. . . . I want to tell you, there is nothing more exciting than that, because the stones are worn. Do you see here the wearing of the stairs? This is nothing compared to the stones that were visited by millions, tens of millions of Jews who would go up to the Temple Mount. What do I want to do? I want to allow both Jews and non-Jews to recreate this experience. We will restore the Siloam Pool, we will be able to restore the way to the Temple Mount, and people will be able to get there to experience this, whoever wants to wash and go up to the Temple Mount experience.”

“Now, whoever does it knows exactly who is the landlord of this city. . . . Our connections to Jerusalem will never be disconnected.” 

“I want to bring ten million tourists to Jerusalem, all of whom will come to these places, and I hope you agree with me that without the infrastructure of trams, cable cars, a high speed rail to Jerusalem, hotels, etc. we will not be able to realize this special experience. And I am on the way to bringing the wider world to this experience, to understand who is really the landlord in this city; all this infrastructure is for this.”