E. J'lem building plan draws world, Palestinian ire

PA says Israel trying to create facts on the ground, US calls construction "illegitimate"; Peace Now threatens court challenge.

Ramat Shlomo 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ramat Shlomo 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s decision late Wednesday night to approve construction of 1,600 apartments in the northeast Jerusalem haredi neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo infuriated the Palestinians and brought sharp condemnations from overseas.
At the beginning of next week, the Interior Ministry is expecting to give the final approval to two additional projects in east Jerusalem – 2,000 housing units in Givat Hamatos and 625 units in Pisgat Ze’ev, Yishai’s spokesman Roei Lachmanovich said.
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Peace Now threatened to bring Yishai to the High Court of Justice over his decision to give final approval to the 1,600 apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a project made famous because it received initial approval during US Vice President Joe Biden’s March 2010 visit.
The announcement at the time of Biden’s visit poisoned the vice president’s trip, led to a dressing down of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and touched off a low point in relations between Jerusalem and the Obama administration.
A State Department official, responding on Thursday to the announcement, said Washington believed “Jerusalem is one of the finalstatus issues, and therefore the disposition of Jerusalem should be decided by the parties in negotiations.
“Unilateral actions by the Israelis or Palestinians that appear to prejudice the outcome of the negotiations are counterproductive,” the official said. “These types of construction are illegitimate and not in the best interest of getting back to negotiations.”
The US reaction was mild compared to the statement put out by UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry, who said he was “alarmed by the announcement.”
“If confirmed, this provocative action undermines ongoing efforts by the international community to bring the parties back to negotiations and shape a positive agenda for September,” Serry said.
“This announcement comes only one week after a separate decision by the government of Israel regarding the construction of additional housing units in another settlement in east Jerusalem [Har Homa] which was widely criticized by the international community.”
Serry said he “will engage with Quartet partners on the issue.”
France was also quick to condemn Yishai’s move, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying “settlements in east Jerusalem, as in the West Bank, are illegal under international law, regardless of the justifications, including their claimed response to socioeconomic imperatives. This decision represents an additional obstacle to a just and lasting peace in which Jerusalem must become the capital of both states, Israel and Palestine.”
The EU had not yet put out a statement, but was expected to do so very soon.
The Palestinian Authority accused the government of seeking to create facts on the ground ahead of a UN vote next month on recognition of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, called upon the US and the EU to pressure the government to “stop this unilateral measure.”
Abbas’s Fatah faction accused Israel of waging a “new aggression” on Palestinian territories by approving the projects in east Jerusalem. It described the decision as a blow to the will of the international community and the UN.
“We reject the policy of the Israeli occupation government to solve its social and economic problems at the expense of the Palestinians and their occupied territories,” Fatah said in a statement.
“We are determined to defend the rights of our people and to resist the occupation’s settler projects through legal means.”
Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the housing projects as a “war crime” and urged US President Barack Obama to change his position against the PA’s statehood bid at the UN.
“We condemn this action which is considered a war crime by the 1949 Geneva Conventions,” Erekat said.
He pointed out that the decision was announced the day after Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had a phone conversation. It was not immediately clear whether this issue was discussed in that conversation, which both sides said dealt with a number of regional issues.
“The only way to preserve the option of the two-state solution – Palestine and Israel – is through the UN and that Palestine be accepted as a member on the 1967 borders,” Erekat said. “Then the policy of settlement construction and imposing dictates on us will become null and void.”
Meanwhile, Jerusalem City Councilor Meir Margalit, who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio, called Yishai “a terrorist.”
“To do this now, when it’s so tense, and everyone is making such a big effort ahead of September, throwing a bomb like this into the political situation really makes him a terrorist,” Margalit said.
According to Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran, the Ramat Shlomo plan still needs to go through the remainder of the approval process, which includes a two-month period for the public to present objections. The project needs at least six months before it can receive Yishai’s final approval, she told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Yishai announced late on Wednesday night that he had approved the 1,600 apartments as an answer to the protests demanding more housing.
Lachmanovich said the minister’s primary concern now was freeing up as much land as possible for construction.
He dismissed the claim that the approval for apartments across the Green Line was political.
“People need to live. If there was room to build in Rehavia, or in Nahlaot, we’d build there, but there’s no land for building,” he said.
He added that Yishai was working to approve as many projects as possible, without regard to location in east or west Jerusalem or whether the residents would be Jewish or Arab.
“If there was a project for Arabs in east Jerusalem, we’d approve that too,” Lachmanovich said.
Ofran noted that while the Ramat Shlomo plan was part of the acceleration program to push large housing projects quickly in order to ameliorate the housing shortage, by law the public gets a two-month period to comment and raise objections.
The project was deposited a week ago, the step before the public comment period.
“They did make technical progress,” she said. “But it still takes another half a year.”
Lachmanovich dismissed Peace Now’s claims and said the group had an agenda it was trying to promote.
The plan for Givat Hamatos has been in the approval process for many years, and is currently involved in a long and complicated legal process to determine ownership of the land.
The area in question is a patchwork quilt of public and private land, and the “parcelization” process to determine who owns what can take several years. However, if enough progress has been made in the legal process, Yishai can give his final approval, which would be activated pending the conclusion of parcelization.
The Pisgat Ze’ev project was approved by the District Committee earlier this year and the final approval is a regular part of the process.
Two weeks ago, a project for 930 units in Har Homa C, the newest neighborhood of Har Homa, also located in east Jerusalem, was approved by the District Committee. International condemnation was muted and delayed, with the US only expressing its disappointment three days later.