US officials attend Israeli settler-linked event in east Jerusalem

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US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, White House Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, center, and Lindsey Graham, a US Senator, attend the opening of an ancient road in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem. (AP)
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) Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, Pool)
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US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the ceremony, which was condemned by Palestinian leaders. (Reuters)
Updated 03 July 2019

US officials attend Israeli settler-linked event in east Jerusalem

  • White House adviser Jason Greenblatt and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman attend the completion of an archaeological project next to the Old City
  • Event follows another night of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian residents in east Jerusalem

JERUSALEM: US officials attended an archaeological event organized by an Israeli settler-linked group in east Jerusalem on Sunday, their latest move breaking with precedent and angering Palestinians.
White House adviser Jason Greenblatt and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman were among US officials present at the event marking the completion of an archaeological project next to the Old City in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.
Greenblatt and Friedman, who gave a speech at the ceremony organized by the City of David Foundation, dismissed accusations it was a further acknowledgement of Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem.
They called it a historic moment unveiling an ancient road the foundation says was a pilgrimage route to the second Jewish temple some 2,000 years ago.
US Senator Lindsey Graham was also in attendance, as were three US ambassadors to other countries and Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, backers of the US Republican party as well as Jewish and Israeli causes.
The wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sara Netanyahu, attended as well.
“Were there ever any doubt about the accuracy, the wisdom, the propriety of President (Donald) Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I certainly think this lays all doubts to rest,” Friedman said in his speech of the archaeological findings.
He said that “some people — not necessarily friends of ours — are obsessing about my being here,” but described American values as originating from biblical texts and “those words came from Jerusalem.”
Friedman was later first to ceremonially help break down a wall with a sledgehammer leading to the ancient road, now underground in a tunnel.
Some 350 meters of the road, which runs around 600 meters, have been exposed and it is expected to be opened to the public at a later date, organizers said.
Work took place in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in the eastern sector of the disputed city.
Palestinians accuse Israel and the foundation of seeking to push them out of Jerusalem.
The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned “in the strongest terms the colonialist plans to replace the existing reality in occupied Jerusalem and the environs of the Old City.”
Emek Shaveh, an Israeli group that opposes the “politicization” of archaeology, also condemned the American presence, calling it “a political act which is the closest the US will have come to recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Old City basin of Jerusalem.”
Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
It sees the entire city as its capital while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
The foundation oversees activities in Israel’s City of David national park in east Jerusalem that seek to demonstrate the connection between Jewish history and the city.
Trump in 2017 broke with decades of precedent by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The White House later cut hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid and closed the Palestinians’ de facto embassy in Washington, among other steps.
Last week, it organized an economic conference in Bahrain meant to kickstart a long-awaited Middle East peace effort, but the Palestinians boycotted it.
Friedman has been a supporter of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and Greenblatt last week said he preferred to call them “neighborhoods and cities” rather than settlements.
Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank are viewed as illegal under international law and major obstacles to peace since they are located on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
The event Sunday also comes after another night of clashes between Israeli police and residents of a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem. At least 15 Palestinians were injured in the Issawiya neighborhood.
The clashes erupted Thursday following the shooting death of a Palestinian man by Israeli police.
Residents say police have stepped up their presence in Issawiya for several weeks and that demonstrators were protesting police violence when 20-year-old Mohammed Obeid was shot.
Police say he hurled fireworks at officers and presented a lethal threat. But residents accuse police of using excessive force and shooting Obeid from close range.
Mohammed Abu Homus, a community leader, said the family was demanding an autopsy. The family has also asked a court to order the release of Obeid’s body. Israeli authorities sometimes hold bodies of Palestinians, fearing the funerals will turn violent.
The Palestinian Red Crescent medical service said the injuries came from rubber bullets, which are used by police to disperse crowds.
*With AP


US general sees smaller but enduring troop presence in Iraq

Updated 16 min 3 sec ago

US general sees smaller but enduring troop presence in Iraq

  • Tensions spiked between the US and Iraq in January after a US drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis
  • McKenzie said the US recognizes that Al-Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions within the government

WASHINGTON: Six months after a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all US troops home, the top US general for the Middle East is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller but enduring military presence there.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, met Tuesday with Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and said afterward that he believes the Iraqis welcome the US and coalition troops, especially in the ongoing fight to keep Daesh militants from taking hold of the country again.
“I believe that going forward, they’re going to want us to be with them,” McKenzie told a small group of reporters, speaking by phone hours after he left Iraq. “I don’t sense there’s a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I’m pretty confident of that.”
Tensions spiked between the US and Iraq in January after a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Angry Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shiite political factions, passed a nonbinding resolution to oust all US-led coalition forces from the country.
In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran on Jan. 8 launched a massive ballistic missile attack on Al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops. Two months later, US fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.
President Donald Trump has vowed to bring troops home and halt what he calls America’s endless wars. But he has also warned Iran to expect a bold US response if Iranian-backed militias attack Americans in Iraq.
The US invaded Iraq in 2003, but troops left in 2011. American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after Daesh began taking over large swaths of the country,
McKenzie last visited Iraq in early February, slipping into the country for a few hours to meet with leaders as anti-American sentiment was soaring and violent protests and rocket attacks were pummeling the American Embassy.
Relations, however, have improved since Al-Kadhimi took over in May. And while some groups, such as parliament’s Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of US forces, there is an emerging dialog between the US and Iraq on the future relationship between the two nations.
McKenzie said the US recognizes that Al-Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions within the government and maintain relations with both the US and Iran.
The US has criticized Iraq’s government for being unable to rein in the Iran-backed militia groups it believes are orchestrating the attacks. And Al-Kadhimi has pledged to protect American troops and installations from attacks.
“I think he’s negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him,” McKenzie said. “He’s in a very difficult position.”
McKenzie said he hopes the US-Iraq meeting slated for this month will be face-to-face but knows the coronavirus pandemic could affect that. The talks are expected to run the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritizing future force levels in Iraq and the ongoing militia attacks, and Baghdad focusing more on its dire economic crisis.
“Certainly we need some foreign presence in Iraq,” McKenzie said. “I don’t know that it needs to be as big as it is now, because ultimately that’s going to be a political, not a military, decision. But I think the Iraqis know, welcome and value what we do for them now.”
There are between 5,000 and 6,000 US troops in Iraq.
McKenzie would not say how many US troops might stay. But he said Iraqi conventional forces now operate on their own. US and coalition forces continue to conduct training and counterterrorism operations, including with Iraqi commandos. Any final decisions, he said, would be coordinated with the Iraqi government.
He said that as Iraqi troops grow more competent, fewer coalition forces would be needed.