Israel gave all-but-final approval Wednesday for a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, ignoring international concerns and Palestinian warnings that the construction could set off a fresh round of violence and threaten the fragile peace process.
The Israelis approved the building on the traditionally Arab side of the Holy City after a ministerial committee meeting convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned last year on a promise to expand Jewish settlement in the Arab territories Israel has occupied for nearly three decades.
Palestinian officials immediately denounced the decision, calling it a violation of the interim Israeli-Palestinian accords and a dangerous mistake that called into question the years of mutual peacemaking.
“The whole peace process is in danger,” said Nabil abu Rudaineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Ahmad Tibi, an Arafat advisor, added: “There is a lot of anger and frustration. Two of the most sensitive issues between us are settlements and Jerusalem. In this action, we have both.”
Late Wednesday, Arafat was in an emergency meeting at his Gaza City headquarters to determine the Palestinian response.
The Israeli decision met with swift international condemnation. The United States, which brokered the recent agreement on the Israeli troop withdrawal from most of the West Bank city of Hebron, expressed concern. White House spokesman David Johnson said the latest Israeli decision “further complicates an already complicated situation.”
King Hussein of Jordan, whose country maintains the closest ties of any Arab nation to the Jewish state, sent an envoy to Netanyahu urging him to reverse the decision, which the monarch said could undermine the Middle East peace process.
But Netanyahu, who said his government also intends to permit construction of 3,015 units for Arabs in the next three years, characterized Wednesday’s decision as a step to ease a severe housing shortage in Jerusalem. “We are not seeking confrontation with anyone,” he said Wednesday. “We are asserting our right as the sovereign in Jerusalem to build anywhere the government may decide to build, and this we did today, I think, with great responsibility.”
Plans call for building 2,456 apartments in the first phase of a 6,500-home development for Jews on a tranquil, pine-forested hill that separates East Jerusalem from nearby Palestinian villages. The area, which is at the rocky southeastern corner of the city’s outskirts, is known as Har Homa in Hebrew and Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic.
Israeli officials said the plans--unanimously approved Wednesday by a 12-member ministerial committee on Jerusalem--must clear minor bureaucratic hurdles before the work can begin.
Israeli peace activists, who have fought for years to stop the project, said they again will appeal to their nation’s Supreme Court to try to block construction.
But Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan said groundbreaking could occur within two weeks.
Palestinians said they were not mollified by Israeli promises to build homes for Arabs in 10 communities around Jerusalem. They pointed to similar words by previous Israeli governments and said nothing had come of such plans. “This is totally misleading, a total lie,” Tibi said.
In recent days, anticipated approval of the Har Homa development has caused an upsurge in tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, peoples for whom no issue is as emotional or as profoundly divisive as the future of Jerusalem.
Contributing to the volatile atmosphere, Israeli undercover troops, reportedly on a botched training mission, shot and killed a Palestinian man Tuesday in Hizma, a village just northeast of Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, angry villagers waiting for the funeral of the shooting victim stoned Israeli troops inside Hizma. And as news of the housing decision spread, there were scattered reports of stone-throwing elsewhere on the West Bank but no immediate word of any injuries.
The Israeli army and police called hundreds of reinforcements to Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank in anticipation of protests and possible violence.
Palestinians have warned that a decision to build in the disputed area could prompt anti-Israeli violence as happened in September when battles in the West Bank and Gaza Strip killed at least 75 Palestinians and Israelis and injured more than 1,000 others. Those confrontations began after Israel opened an entrance to a tourist tunnel near Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israelis across the political spectrum view Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish state; many, even in the leftist Labor Party, have supported the Har Homa project. But Palestinians hope the city’s eastern sector will one day become the capital of their own independent state.
They speak almost with one voice, decrying the housing development as part of an Israeli plan to surround East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods, choking it off from the West Bank.
Under the interim peace agreements between the sides, the subject of the city’s future is to be taken up in talks, scheduled to begin next month, on a permanent accord.
Israeli officials said privately that they hope that, because Arafat is to visit the United States next week, he will do all in his power to ensure he leaves with no huge disputes or violence at home.