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(photo credit: AP)
While news that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had approved the construction of 455 new housing units in Judea and Samaria made its way across the country on Monday, residents of Pisgat Ze'ev, together with members of Jerusalem's City Council, said they were at a loss as to why building had not yet commenced on some 800 planned housing units in the east Jerusalem neighborhood.
Rumors that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had agreed to halt construction in Pisgat Ze'ev stirred a row in late July when Channel 10 broadcast a report claiming that the prime minister had agreed to a freeze in the neighborhood after talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
The Prime Minster's Office denied the report at the time, but Netanyahu has since come under fire from both residents and local politicians over the apparent absence of development, and both groups remained critical of the seeming halt in construction on Monday.
"Nothing is happening on the ground," a spokeswoman from Pisgat Ze'ev's local administration offices told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "The units are planned, they were supposed to go up, and in the meantime, something here is frozen. I don't know if that is for political or bureaucratic reasons."
"In the meantime, I have people calling every day about apartments here," she added. " There's a huge lack of apartments all over Jerusalem, but I think it's especially felt here because there are no new apartments being built whatsoever."
Jerusalem City Council Member Elisha Peleg echoed these statements, telling the Post that he "had no answers" as to why construction on the planned apartments was still being stalled. Peleg was one of 20 City Council members to sign a letter sent to Netanyahu last month demanding that the prime minister approve the proper tenders for the construction of apartments there.
"On one hand, the government is saying that Jerusalem is off the table, and not up for discussion [in negotiations with the Americans]," Peleg said. "But on the other hand, they are in no way allowing the development of Jerusalem. There is a huge need for housing here, and no apartments are being built anywhere."
Peleg said he was planning on bringing the issue of building in Jerusalem to the next City Council meeting, which is scheduled for later this month.
While Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev clearly confirmed on Monday that "Jerusalem is not up for discussion," MK Uri Ariel (National Union), told supporters at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Mevaseret Adumin neighborhood near Ma'aleh Adumim on Monday evening, "The Housing Ministry is not allowing new building in east Jerusalem."
"They are not giving permission to build in east Jerusalem," Ariel later clarified in a phone conversation with the Post. "Not only is the Housing Ministry not allowing any projects to go through, they're not even allowing new projects to be planned."
Yakir Segev, who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio in the Jerusalem Municipality, seemed to back that claim up, when he told the Post on Monday that, "In action, the government is not opening the bids for construction projects in Pisgat Ze'ev. I don't know why, but if there isn't a freeze there, then why aren't they building?"
Meanwhile, an article that appeared last month in the Hebrew-language financial newspaper, The Marker, alleged that the Israel Lands Authority had begun accepting appeals from contractors for the original tenders in Pisgat Ze'ev, which are now the subject of the freeze rumors.
According to the report, those tenders had been stalled since August 2008, when, due to poor financial forecasts, the bids received from real estate developers had been too low and were subsequently rejected by the then Ehud Olmert-led government.
An ILA spokeswoman told the Post on Monday that she "didn't know anything about the claims," but "remembered the reporter [from The Marker] calling last month and asking about the situation in Pisgat Ze'ev."
"I told him the same thing," she said. "That there was no information about it."
Nonetheless, the article goes on to state that the old bids to begin building 450 of those original units are now being accepted by the ILA, which would not only pave the way for renewed construction in Pisgat Ze'ev, but would also be an odd financial decision on behalf of the ILA, as those original bids likely fall far below what new bids on the same units would earn today.
"The only logical explanation for this would be that it would allow Netanyahu to tell the Americans, 'there's nothing new here, these are those same old tenders,'" said Daniel Sideman, a lawyer for the Ir Amim organization who has been following the Pisgat Ze'ev situation closely.