Last week, an incident that could have set the entire Middle East on fire was prevented. Netanyahu's secret plan to visit a disputed tunnel in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, at the site known as Ir David (the City of David), was canceled, probably with some international intervention. Am I exaggerating the danger? No. Judging from past experience, provocations in Jerusalem never end well, and with the tensions in Jerusalem clearly rising in recent weeks, the potential for an explosion is very real.
First, some background about this secret plan is in order: Less than a week after he returned from Washington, after lowering everybody's expectations and holding the coldest summit possible with Abbas and Obama, Netanyahu decided it was time to unite his quarreling staffers. He decided, apparently, that the best way to do this would be to organize a morale-building event in Jerusalem. Of all possible Jerusalem sites, he decided to take them on a tour of Ir David (the City of David), in the heart of Silwan. The plan was eventually revealed (it is hard to hide a plan that involves Israeli security forces cordoning off an entire section of the city), Silwan residents organized a protest, reporters started making inquiries and high-level policymakers in Washington and around the world were alerted. Reportedly, after several calls were apparently received from Washington, Netanyahu decided to cancel the tour.
Why is an event in Ir David so controversial? Unquestionably, Ir David is an interesting and important tourist site, full of archaeological findings from ancient Jerusalem. But that is not the whole story. Indeed the very terminology is telling: Biblical "Ir David" is also contemporary Silwan - a vibrant Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem In recent years the State of Israel has given an extremist settlers' association- known as Elad - a franchise to manage the the archeological site in Silwan and much of the neighborhood's public domain. Elad - well-funded by supporters in the US and elsewhere - finances and runs most of the extensive archaeological digs that take place in Silwan (and is in charge of guiding tours on site, and collects fees from visitors). But Elad is not only interested in archeology: the group is dedicated to obtaining control over more and more property in the area and replacing Palestinian residents with Jewish settlers.
In just a few years, Elad has managed to transform the Silwan landscape, turning a neighborhood of 7,500 Palestinian residents (who live around the tourist site) into a location dominated by Israel. Visitors to the tourist site are not even aware that they are in a Palestinian neighborhood. Special paths have been constructed to avoid the main street, so tourists can enter and traverse the site without encountering any evidence of Palestinian residents. And half of the Ir David tour is actually conducted underground, in tunnels. Even the most observant tourist has no way of knowing that their tour is taking them under a Palestinian house or shop.
Initially, in the early 1990's, Elad would seize individual houses for settlement purposes (with the generous aid of the State of Israel, which handed over to the settlers many State assets at bargain basement prices and absent any public bidding process). With time, Elad apparently realized that this strategy could not accomplish the kind of wholesale conceptual and demographic changes on the ground they desired, so they opted for a new method: seizing historic, archaeological, and tourist assets in Silwan, and achieving Jewish domination of the entire area through them.
This method was a resounding success and was copied to other places in East Jerusalem as well. Acquiring Palestinian houses for settlement purposes is controversial, but who can argue with archaeological diggings that uncover important and amazing relics of Jerusalem's ancient history? Who could possibly object to the development of a tourist site where so many people can enjoy Jerusalem's historic cultural assets? Thus the settlement model changed: house seizures are played down and continuing quietly, while tourist-archaeological development is accentuated.
Thus, Netanyahu thought he could afford to plan a tour of one of the most sensitive places in Jerusalem, to be made in the midst of efforts to restart the peace process, under the pretext of a visit to a tourist and historic site, not a Palestinian neighborhood. While there, he was supposed to guide his tour through a new tunnel that was recently exposed under the main street of Silwan, under the residents' houses, in what was supposed to be an unofficial inauguration of the tunnel.
On the designated day, the Palestinian residents of Silwan noticed unusual activity. The tourist site was closed for visitors at 4:00 pm, while security and production personnel were seen running around and carrying equipment. The new tunnel was shined and polished, and the construction of its exit stairs was completed.
This started rumors and phone calls between reporters, activists, and diplomats. Eventually, Netanyahu had to release a statement denying the rumors, but actually confirming the story.
The Prime Minister's Office said that the rumors claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will unveil Wednesday a tunnel in Silwan in Jerusalem's Old City are unfounded. It was also reported that Netanyahu is slated to attend an event for his office's team at a parking lot near the City of David "contrary to the baseless rumors spread by the Palestinians
So according to the denial, Netanyahu was not planning to officially inaugurate the new tunnel in Silwan, but only to visit the City of David.
While we may accept his argument that visiting the new tunnel would not officially "unveil" it, the claim that he would be visiting the City of David, not Silwan, was a demonstration of the art of denial and deception. It is an example of the Government of Israel trying to sell the world the "virtual reality" that Elad has created - an Israeli tourist site that (it is hoped people will believe) has nothing to do with Silwan or Palestinians, though it exists in the heart of Silwan and has been established, and is expanding today, at the expense of the Palestinian residents of the area. The tunnels and the diggings play a dual role here. They not only represent important historic findings, but also create a reality of Israeli governance under the ground. This allows for tours of the underground of the Old City and Silwan where the visitor never even sees a Palestinian - a sort of vertical distribution of sovereignty.
The fact that the digs and tunnels worry the Palestinians (and Muslims who are not Palestinian) is not surprising. For them, the fear of Israel digging under their homes, not to mention their holy sites - bearing in mind that for the same reason Jews are interested in the Silwan tunnels (their proximity and historical relevance to the Temple Mount), Palestinians and Muslims are also deeply concerned about the tunnels (their proximity to the Haram Al Sharif) - is very real, and is associated with ancient, mythological fears. The fact that some extremist Jews make clear their ardent desire to see the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque disappear, in order to make way for the building of Third Jewish temple, only strengthens these fears (indeed, near the Western Wall a group has installed a scale model of the Second (and what they perhaps hope will be the Third) Temple; there are farmers who are working feverishly the breed a red heifer for sacrifice at the temple, there is an organization dedicated to creating the priestly raiments for use in the temple, etc). It should be recalled, too, that when in 1996 then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to open the Western Wall Tunnel under the Muslim Quarter, the "tunnel intifada" broke out, and riots all over the West Bank ended with 69 Palestinian and 15 IDF fatalities.
It seems, sadly, that Netanyahu has not learned his lesson. This time, the provocation was prevented, probably by our American friends, who from time to time must play the role of the responsible adult who holds a broader perspective of things and knows how to curb Netanyahu, who is desperately trying to score points with his right-wing supporters by presenting himself as the champion of Jerusalem and the settlements. The two-state solution is dependent on a compromise in Jerusalem in which, the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be the Palestinian capital. The efforts to take control over sites and neighborhoods in Palestinian East Jerusalem is meant to prevent this compromise, and thus are a threat to the only possible peaceful solution - the two-state solution. Such efforts - and the growing provocations that accompany them - must be stopped.