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Israel’s government angers Palestinians by meeting near Jerusalem holy site

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, presides over a special Cabinet session held in a tunnel near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.
(Gali Tibbon / Pool Photo)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unusual step Sunday of convening his Cabinet at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, spurring howls of protest by Palestinians who claim the area where it is located for the capital of a future state.

The special session marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem was held in a tunnel near the giant limestone blocks of the Western Wall, a place of reverence for Jews because of its proximity to where two ancient temples stood in biblical times — the holiest site in Judaism.

Palestinians saw the meeting as a provocation. Muslims consider the Western Wall part of the Noble Sanctuary, an esplanade that includes Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel annexed the Old City site along with all of East Jerusalem, a move that was never recognized by the international community.

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The area is flashpoint for both sides. Netanyahu’s decision in 1996 to open a new tunnel entrance spurred days of violence in the West Bank that left about 100 Palestinians and more than a dozen Israelis dead.

“Today’s meeting in occupied East Jerusalem is an attempt by the Israeli government to normalize occupation, oppression and colonization over the land and people of Palestine,’’ Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

The Cabinet session was the latest example of posturing by Netanyahu, who is under pressure from religious nationalist politicians to be more proactive in asserting Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Netanyahu pledged Sunday to plow more resources into developing the area around Jerusalem’s Old City and to build a cable car to improve access to the Western Wall.

“Following the destruction of the Second Temple, this spot was the focus of the longings of our people for generations,’’ Netanyahu said. “Thousands of years have passed, the Jewish people returned to their land, established a state and are now building its unified capital.’’

If carried out, Israel’s plans could upset a delicate “status quo” in the Old City, said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“Netanyahu is trying to respond to pressure from the religious right, which is asking, ‘Fifty years after capturing Jerusalem, what’s next?’'' he said. “Palestinians see this as the entire Israeli government saying, ‘Now we are just below the wall, but we want to push ahead.’”

Israeli celebrations of the “reunification” of Jerusalem kicked off a week ago, with Netanyahu vowing at a festive ceremony that Israel would never relinquish control over the Old City.

The following day, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president in more than a century to visit the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to mark the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Israelis viewed the gesture as tacit recognition of their control over East Jerusalem, even though the White House declined a request for Netanyahu to join the president, in keeping with U.S. policy that the status of the Old City is a subject for peace negotiations.

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

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