Settlers in suits

White House officials Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman helping to sledge-hammer the opening to a tunnel beneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem on 30 June. (via Twitter)

US officials participated in the launch of a settlement project in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Sunday.

Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman helped to sledge-hammer the opening to a tunnel beneath the Palestinian neighborhood, part of a project by Elad, an organization that settles Israeli Jews in occupied East Jerusalem in violation of international law.

The “Path of the Pilgrims” project is part of the so-called City of David, a theme park built on the ruins of stolen Palestinian homes.

The construction and expansion of the site is part of Israel’s ongoing effort to erase Jerusalem’s Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Muslim history and remake and rewrite the city’s past and present as predominantly or exclusively Jewish.

Israel’s digging of the tunnel directly damages the homes of Palestinian residents of Silwan right above it and caused the partial collapse of a parking lot last year.

Silwan is the focus of intense government-backed settlement activity by Jewish extremist groups.

The project is reminiscent of a notorious incident in 1996, when the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a tunnel under the perimeter of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound sparking protests by Palestinians, and fighting between Israeli occupation soldiers and Palestinian Authority forces throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, and at least a dozen Israelis died, including six soldiers killed in gun battles with Palestinian forces in Nablus.

In attendance

Sunday’s inauguration was attended by a number of American and Israeli personalities.

They included Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who was the top donor to Trump’s presidential campaign, and his wife Miriam Adelson, now officially the wealthiest person in Israel.

Others included Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, former mayor of the Israeli-imposed municipality ruling occupied East Jerusalem Nir Barkat, Israeli education minister Rafi Peretz and Sara Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister’s wife who recently pled guilty on corruption charges.

Settlement funders and guards

It comes as no surprise that Greenblatt and Friedman are literally helping undermine a Palestinian neighborhood.

Greenblatt used to work as a guard armed with an M-16 assault weapon at an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank before he was Trump’s envoy.

Friedman is a longtime funder and staunch advocate for the expansion of illegal settlements.

Last week, Friedman toured the occupied West Bank’s Jordan Valley with US national security adviser John Bolton and lauded the “extraordinary importance of Israel’s control of this territory to the security of Israel and the entire region.”

The Jordan Valley lies in Area C, the 60 percent of the occupied West Bank that remains under full Israeli military control under the terms of the Oslo accords of the early 1990s.

The US ambassador also participated in the establishment of the “Trump Heights” settlement in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in June, which the US recognized as Israeli territory earlier this year.

The Golan Heights is Syrian territory occupied by Israel during the 1967 war along with the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, from which Israel eventually withdrew.

The acquisition of territory by war is prohibited under international law and Israel’s construction of settlements for its civilian population on occupied land is a war crime.

Nothing new

Reacting to the US officials’ participation in the settler project, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem stated that “For years, US foreign policy has been part of the problem, not of the solution.”

But the group asserted that the actions of US President Donald Trump, his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, Friedman and Greenblatt “are digging us into a deeper hole.”

Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian lawmaker in Israel’s parliament, called Friedman “the ambassador of the settlers” who is “turning the US embassy into a center for extremism rather than diplomacy.”

Yet while the actions of the envoy and ambassador appear brazen, they arguably do not stray far from what previous US administrations have enabled for decades.

The administration of Barack Obama, for instance, took no action during eight years in office to sanction Israel for its flagrant violations of international law, especially settlement construction.

And despite such violations, the Obama administration rewarded Israel with the biggest military aid package in history.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, stated that the participation of Friedman and Greenblatt in the event was “criminal collusion in the commission of a war crime that must be condemned as well as universally and unequivocally confronted.”

As Friedman and Greenblatt celebrated the settler project, Israeli police assaulted and detained activists protesting it:

The liberal Zionist organization J Street’s campus arm criticized Friedman’s participation in the settlement project:

But despite such criticisms, the lobby group is launching an “alternative Birthright” program this week meant to compete with Birthright Israel, an initiative which doles out free trips to Israel in an attempt to foster Zionist commitment and eventual emigration by young American Jews.

While J Street’s program – which will target young progressive Jews – includes meeting with Palestinians in the West Bank and visits to the Gaza-Israel boundary fence, it still caters to the premise that Jews from anywhere in the world can immigrate and receive citizenship in Israel even if they have no prior connection to the country.

At the same time, Palestinians, including refugees born there and their direct descendants, are barred by Israel from returning to their homeland solely because they are not Jewish.

Legalizing land theft

Meanwhile, an Israeli court accepted a claim by the state that settlements built on private Palestinian land can be legalized under Israeli law if the land was mistakenly thought to belong to the state.

What this means is that settlements built in what an Israeli court deems “good faith” could gain legal status, despite being built on stolen land, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

The newspaper stated that this could set a precedent to legalize some 2,000 settlement homes in the occupied West Bank.

It does not mention how “good faith” is measured by the court especially since settlers routinely use fraud to claim title to Palestinian land.

Jewish-only towns

While living under a different legal regime, Palestinian citizens of Israel face systematic discrimination that has similar results as in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli law permits so-called admission committees in Jewish-only towns to reject Palestinian citizens of Israel from living there.

Under the law, towns with fewer than 400 households are authorized to reject prospective residents if they are deemed “not suitable for the social life in the community” or possibly “harm[ful]” to the “social-cultural fabric” of the town.

There are at least 24 towns in the Galilee and Naqab regions that operate admissions committees despite containing more than 400 households, according to a report issued by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

When Israel passed the law authorizing admissions committees in 2011, Human Rights Watch stated that the law was a ruse to “mask discrimination under the vague criteria that a candidate is ‘unsuitable’ to the community’s ‘social characteristics.’”

Human Rights Watch noted that the law’s sponsors made statements in parliament indicating that they “intended it to allow majority-Jewish communities to maintain their current demographic makeup by excluding Palestinian Arab citizens, an act of discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity and national origin.”

Adalah, a legal advocacy group for Palestinians in Israel, is demanding that the committees halt their work and that they “be prohibited from receiving state lands.”

“The purported ‘social and cultural fabric’ of these 24 communities is nothing more than a fiction designed to blur the main purpose of the admissions committee: the legalized implementation of racist segregation,” Adalah attorney Myssana Morany stated.

“The creation of communities off limits to Arab citizens is part of a comprehensive policy aimed at reducing the living space of Arab citizens in general and Judaizing the Galilee and the Naqab (Negev) in particular.”

Israeli municipal officials, even of large cities, habitually act to prevent integration and equal housing rights for Palestinian citizens in Israel.

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There are no "settlers" in the occupied territories, they are invaders.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.