Against the background of hundreds of tent-dwelling activists protesting against the lack of affordable housing, a controversial new neighborhood with 930 apartments in east Jerusalem was given final approved on Thursday. Two years after it was first deposited for approval, the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee gave their final approval for Har Homa C, which is located on a hill adjacent to the current Har Homa neighborhood.

In a nod to the protesters, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that 20% of the apartments will be smaller apartments destined to be more accessible to young couples. He added that he had instructed his office to promote projects that had a mix of large and small apartments in order to address the lack of affordable housing. “We are continuing to build in Jerusalem and in all of Israel,” Yishai said in a statement. “The lack of real estate is severe and we will not stop projects.”

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The project has come up for discussion a number of times in the past year, including twice in the spring, though each time it was delayed for political reasons. It was delayed when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited London, and then again when President Shimon Peres met with President Obama. The moves were interpreted as a confidence-building gesture in order to avoid the Ramat Shlomo fiasco of March 2010, when 1600 units were approved in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, which the Americans treated as a personal affront.

Even with the final approval from the Interior Ministry, it will still be at least two years until the apartments begin construction. First, the state must publish tenders and approve a contractor, and all of the infrastructure must be laid for the new neighborhood, including roads, pipes, and electricity.

Despite the ministry’s claim that it would ease the housing shortage, leaders from across the spectrum dismissed the fact that the approval was in any way spurred by the three-week-long housing protests sweeping the country.

“It’s a shame it just happened now, it just goes to show that all the delays were just royalty making a performance, because at the end they were going to approve them, so why not approve it half a year ago rather than now?” asked Jerusalem City Council member Elisha Peleg (Likud).

“It’s important to release as much land as possible for building, without connection [to the protests], we’ve known for years that there’s a housing lack. What, this is news? We need all of these protests to know there’s a housing shortage?” he added.

Peace Now map

Peace Now accused Yishai of “cynically exploiting the housing shortage to force young couples to move to settlements on economic grounds.”

“Just imagine does Netanyahu say, well, there are no apartments in Israel, so I have to go occupy Bethlehem? What’s the problem with building in Israel?” asked Peace Now’s settlement expert Hagit Ofran.

“I think that whoever is against the project is against it for ideological reasons, and they will be against it whether there is  a lack of housing or not,” she said. “The government is trying to score points with the policy of settlements.”

Ofran added that activists see Har Homa as one of the most controversial Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, because it was started after the Oslo accords and because it creates a barrier of Jewish homes between east Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods and Bethlehem. The idea of “continuous territory” is an explosive issue, and one that presents a severe stumbling block to negotiations about a future Palestinian state, said Ofran. 

An official in the Prime Minister's Office downplayed the significance of the Interior Ministry approval, saying "there is nothing new here," and that this project has been in the works for some time.

"The Prime Minister never agreed to a construction freeze in Jerusalem," the official said. "He has been above board about this."

The official dismissed concerns that this would only harden the Palestinian resolve to ask the UN for statehood recognition in September, saying "I don't see this as a factor in their decision."

"No one was surprised by this," the official added, "least of all the Palestinians."

Herb Keinon contributed to this report.

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