Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Israel Plans 1,000 Housing Units in East Jerusalem



The New York Times

November 8, 2010

Israel Plans 1,000 Housing Units in East Jerusalem


JERUSALEM — Israel has published plans for some 1,000 new housing units in a hotly contested area of Jerusalem, advancing the approval process at a delicate time when the United States is pressing Israel to renew a freeze in settlement construction and get stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians back on track.

The plans were published for public review in the advertising sections of local newspapers on Friday, shortly before the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, left for a trip to the United States. The advertisement of the plans, a necessary step ahead of final approval, was picked up and given prominent exposure by the Haaretz news site and other Israeli news media on Monday.

Mr. Netanyahu, who traveled to the United States for the annual convention of the Jewish Federations of North America, met Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Sunday and was expected to meet Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later this week.

“We were deeply disappointed by the announcement of advance planning for new housing units in sensitive areas of East Jerusalem,” said the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley. “It is counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.”

“We have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust, including in Jerusalem, and will continue to work to resume direct negotiations to address this and other final-status issues,” Mr. Crowley said. The construction of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem has been a source of acute tension between Israel and the United States this year. In March, when Mr. Biden was visiting Jerusalem, Israel announced plans for 1,600 Jewish units in another contested area of the city, embarrassing Mr. Biden and infuriating President Obama. Mr. Netanyahu was said to have been surprised by the announcement at the time. Israeli officials promised Washington that they would keep closer tabs on the progress of building plans in Jerusalem to avoid any more surprises while negotiations were under way.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Netanyahu knew in advance about Friday’s advertisements, which were published in the name of the chairwoman of the Interior Ministry’s district planning committee.

Efrat Orbach, the Interior Ministry spokeswoman, played down the significance of the publication of the latest plans for the Jewish district known as Har Homa. She said on Monday that the advertisement of the plans was a purely “technical” issue, opening them up for objections from the public, and that the timing was a function of bureaucracy. The plans gained initial approval in the district planning committee about two years ago, and it will be years until the new units are actually built.

Nevertheless, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that the Palestinians condemned the latest plans “in the strongest possible terms.”

Mr. Erekat said by telephone that Mr. Netanyahu “is defying everyone and saying, ‘My choice is settlements, not peace.’ ”

Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes and monitors Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, called the publication of the plans “a real provocation.”

The plans, once approved, would constitute a considerable expansion of Har Homa, a Jewish residential development in southern Jerusalem in territory that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, then annexed. The Israeli annexation has not been internationally recognized, and the Palestinians claim the territory as part of a future Palestinian state.

Har Homa has long been a particular site of contention. It was established in the late 1990s during Mr. Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, despite strong American opposition and vigorous Palestinian protests. Located within the city limits set by Israel after the 1967 war, Israelis consider it an integral Jewish neighborhood of their capital. But the Palestinians and much of the world consider it and similar Jewish developments across the 1967 lines as illegal settlements on occupied land.

Plans were published in recent days for an additional 320 housing units in another disputed area of Jerusalem, Ramot.

Under intense American and Palestinian pressure, the Israeli government agreed last year to a 10-month moratorium on new residential building in West Bank settlements. The moratorium expired in late September, and the Palestinians have since suspended peace talks with Israel, conditioning their resumption on a renewal of the freeze.

Israel insisted that its temporary moratorium did not apply in East Jerusalem, where it claims sovereignty and where some 200,000 Jews now live. But there was little movement in building plans there during the freeze.

Also Monday, the foreign minister of Germany, Guido Westerwelle, visited Hamas-controlled Gaza and called on Israel to lift the closure of the area completely. Mr. Westerwelle said the blockade “supports extremism and weakens the moderates,” and called on Israel to allow exports from the Palestinian enclave.

Israel greatly increased the flow of goods into Gaza through the land crossings under international pressure last summer, after an Israeli raid on a flotilla trying to breach the naval blockade led to clashes and the death of nine activists on board a Turkish vessel.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that won parliamentary elections in 2006 and took full control of Gaza in 2007, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

The German foreign minister also called for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza by Hamas since 2006. A German mediator has been trying to broker a prisoner exchange.

Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company



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