Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

With Cable Car and Other Planned Projects, Israel Tightens Grip on Arab East Jerusalem

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

With Cable Car and Other Planned Projects, Israel Tightens Grip on Arab East Jerusalem

Article excerpt

PALESTINIAN LEADERS HAVE denounced new construction projects they say are intended to further tighten Israel's grip on occupied East Jerusalem and its holy places, including the incendiary site of al-Aqsa Mosque.

The most elaborate plan is for a cable car to bring thousands of visitors an hour to the Western Wall and its Jewish prayer plaza immediately below the Haram Al-Sharif, a compound containing al-Aqsa and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

The $56 million project was unveiled at a late May meeting of the Israeli cabinet in tunnels below Haram Al-Sharif. It was the first time the cabinet has met in Jerusalem's Old City, which Israel annexed in violation of international law.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the meeting in the provocative location to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel's illegal occupation of East Jerusalem following its launching of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have expressed mounting concern that Netanyahu's stated intention to "strengthen Jerusalem" conceals a policy of driving out Palestinians and seizing control over the al-Aqsa compound. Israel claims two ancient Jewish temples are built under the mosque.

In June, Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian Authority official, told Israeli TV that Netanyahu's government had to stop treating the site as though it were under Israeli sovereignty. "If you want to create an explosion, just say 'It's ours, it's ours,'" he said.

However, in the same program, Rajoub suggested the PA might agree to Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall. The PA appealed in late May to the United Nations Security Council to take action to protect Jerusalem from what it called Israeli attempts to "Judaize" the city.

Officials believe Israel is seeking to foil any future peace-making efforts by preventing East Jerusalem from ever becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

President Donald Trump, who visited East Jerusalem as part of a visit to the region in May, has promised he will soon unveil the "ultimate deal" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In June he signed a waiver delaying moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on the grounds that it would harm prospects for such a deal.

In addition to the cable car, Netanyahu's government announced a $14 million elevator and underground passageway to facilitate access for disabled and elderly people to the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the al-Aqsa compound and a Jewish holy site.

Longer term, Israel hopes to build a subterranean station connecting the site by express train from Tel Aviv. Netanyahu told his ministers the various projects would strengthen the Jewish people's connection to the city.

These latest moves follow figures showing that Israeli authorities have been allowing Jewish ultra-nationalists to visit the al-Aqsa compound in record numbers.

Palestinians have long complained that Jewish extremists are being allowed to pray at the site, in contravention of agreements, and that they pose a danger because many support destroying al-Aqsa and building a Jewish temple in its place.

In June, during Ramadan, tensions escalated as Jewish extremists continued to be allowed to visit the site in large numbers. Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in the compound resulted in a number of arrests.

The United Nations cultural body, UNESCO, passed a resolution in May reaffirming that East Jerusalem is occupied, and that "illegal practices" by Israel were threatening historical and cultural sites there.

"Step by step, Israel is finding ways to take over al-Aqsa," said Khalil Tufakji, a Palestinian geographer in Jerusalem and director of the Arab Studies Society's mapping department, which monitors settler activity.

He added: "Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians and to Jordan [whose officials formally oversee the site] that 'al-Aqsa is no longer yours. We can enter and we can do as we please there. …

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