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(photo credit: AP)
During her visit here last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chided Israel for the Jerusalem Municipality's plans to demolish some 80 buildings illegally constructed by Arabs in east Jerusalem's Emek Hamelech.
Israel, according to Clinton, thereby violates "obligations entered into under the road map," proving itself "unhelpful" in furthering peace prospects.
But Clinton's comments during her first official foray into this region's diplomatic minefields were themselves unhelpful.
We're used to overseas critics of Israel championing, with little reflection, the Arab position. Yet since Clinton is new to her role, and represents Israel's most important ally, her every statement is scrutinized to divine what Israel can expect from the Obama administration.
What we heard, therefore, generated unease. The importance attached to Clinton's rebuke by outside diplomatic observers and the media makes it all the more unsettling.
We are concerned by the linkage she made between the road map and the operations of Jerusalem's municipal administration. If Israelis were to follow such a linkage to its logical conclusion, then any local authority here could at any time be accused of overstepping arbitrary bounds imposed by outside powers. This infringes on Israeli sovereignty at the most elementary level.
The Jerusalem Municipality, moreover, has acted with utmost care and in legally airtight fashion. It has, if anything, conducted this affair with greater circumspection, moderation, tolerance and restraint than would any American municipality given similar circumstances.
Not that the circumstances anywhere else can compare to those of Emek Hamelech (King's Valley or Silwan). This area, part of a First Temple royal enclave, perhaps King David's own, is of matchless historical significance and includes sites holy to all three monotheistic religions.
"Because of its importance to three billion people of faith around the world," observed a municipal spokesman, "Emek Hamelech is not intended for residential development but as an open public space. This position is concurrent with positions taken during the British Mandate and going back to Ottoman control of the area."
Residents of the unlawful buildings in question, continued the spokesman, had "turned to the District [Planning] Commission of the Interior Ministry, which rejected their petitions and did not [retroactively] approve the illegal construction of the buildings, due to the fact that the Emek Hamelech area is intended for public recreational use."
WHAT THE spokesman did not specify is that the area is a prime archeological site and that the illegal construction, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, has already wrought considerable, often irreversible damage to some of the world's most unique biblical-era relics.
Paradoxically, Arab illegal construction in this particular area is recent and wouldn't have been possible without Israeli technological improvements. King's Valley was regularly flooded each winter, until the municipality devised means to drain it some 20 years ago. Since then, Arab squatters flocked to the reclaimed land and illegally constructed a variety of structures on what was earmarked as an archeological park.
There were 88 illegal buildings in all, of which seven were demolished over the years. Legal proceedings are under way to pull down the remaining structures.
Various advocacy groups appealed to the District Planning Commission. Their failure to secure retroactive approval for the land-seizure left the squatters legally vulnerable.
Thereupon, Hamas sympathizer Sheikh Raed Sallah of the Northern Branch Islamic Movement sounded the rallying cry and organized protests that culminated in an Arab general strike. As expected, this extremist garnered instant support abroad. We are, however, perturbed that even the American secretary of state has seen fit to amplify Sallah's incendiary propaganda.
It would have been better had she noted that of 28 court-ordered demolitions already implemented during 2009 in Jerusalem, 11 were in west Jerusalem. The municipality, furthermore, went out of its way to offer brazen offenders compensation and substitute holdings, as if their claim to the archeological site was bona fide.
Looking to the future, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat needs to honor his campaign promise to invest more city resources in Arab neighborhoods and make it easier for Arab residents to obtain necessary building permits.
Yet in the case of Emek Hamelech, Barkat is right to say that Clinton has been misled by Palestinian Arab "disinformation."