Inside the Capital: Set in stone

With or without American approval, the fate of current and future Jewish construction projects in east Jerusalem is clear: They will continue.

ras el amud construction 248.88 (photo credit: Abe Selig)
ras el amud construction 248.88
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
As Ramadan began this week, lending a sense of quiet to Jerusalem's eastern neighborhoods throughout the daylight hours, it was all but calm with regards to the dispute over Jewish building rights in the annexed parts of the capital, as a modest, albeit steady defiance of American pressure to halt construction has been steadily mounting. Recent tension in the area began at the end of May with the Obama administration's demands that Israel halt settlement activity in the West Bank, which was later clarified to include parts of east Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has flirted with minor agreements to those demands - most notably in the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood of the city, where plans to build some 900 apartments have mysteriously stalled since the US pressure began. That mystery only grew this week, after it was learned that a letter signed by 20 of the 31 Jerusalem city council members demanding the prime minister issue the proper tender for the project was delivered to Netanyahu. "I hope the delay in issuing the tender has nothing to do with American pressure, in light of your statement that construction in Jerusalem will not be frozen," the letter read. But other recent moves by the government have also added to the feeling that mixed messages are afoot with regards to Jewish construction projects in the capital. Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted to the Americans that "Jerusalem is not a settlement," and that Israeli sovereignty in the capital was not up for discussion. But last week, Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) was quoted by Israel Radio as saying that no new tenders for building in the West Bank had been issued since the Netanyahu government assumed power, and the delay in Pisgat Ze'ev was eyed suspiciously as being a part of that. Meanwhile, construction projects in neighborhoods near the Old City have been moving forward at a dizzying pace. It was revealed this week that the Jerusalem Municipality was mulling plans for the construction of a large housing complex in Ras el-Amud, an Arab neighborhood near the Mount of Olives cemetery, evoking condemnation from left-wing groups. Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood that has been the scene of much international limelight of late, is home to some of the most illustrious construction projects in all of Jerusalem - the Shepherd Hotel, which has specifically drawn the ire of the Americans, included. Those projects, among others, prompted the nonprofit group, Ir Amim, to release a report on Thursday detailing the "state of Jewish settlement" throughout east Jerusalem, in which the group sounds an alarming tone over plans to move 750 additional Jews into 150 new housing units in the area. THE JERUSALEM city council has been mostly unperturbed, with members telling The Jerusalem Post this week that it matters very little what the prime minister says to the Americans, what the Americans say to the prime minister, or what left-wing groups publish in their reports. According to the councilmen, Jewish construction must go on, no matter the consequence, and every legal right exists to ensure that. "Jews and Arabs both can build in all parts of Jerusalem; there's been no change on that," said city councilman Yakir Segev, who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio at City Hall. "The truth is, this whole story is a lot of spin. The idea of freezing construction in east Jerusalem is a misconception." He said that at the end of the day, the government has very little say in what can or cannot be built in east Jerusalem because the projects are private initiatives that go through the municipality, legally and with all the proper permits. Additionally, Segev explained, east Jerusalem is mostly privately-owned land, distinctly different from the mostly government-owned plots in the capital's west. "Whoever owns land can build on it," he said. "And the government doesn't own land in east Jerusalem, so how can it freeze building there?" Elisha Peleg, a Likud member of the city council, echoed Segev's statements in a conversation with the Post, in which he, too, said that all construction projects in east Jerusalem were private initiatives that had no connection to the government. "Jews have the legal right to build and live in all parts of Jerusalem," he added. "It's the capital of Israel." With regards to the delay in Pisgat Ze'ev, which is built on government-owned land, Peleg said that any "freeze" there was nothing more than a "political game." "The Americans know very well that we have no intention of giving up neighborhoods like Pisgat Ze'ev," he said. "What concerns me are the strong statements the prime minister and other Likud MKs have been making about Jerusalem," he continued. "To me it means that Jerusalem is going to be used as a kind of sacrifice for Judea and Samaria. I think it's a signal when [Netanyahu] says, 'There's nothing to talk about, forget about Jerusalem.' It implies that there is something to be discussed in Judea and Samaria." On the other side of the debate, Meir Margalit, a city council member from Meretz, also dismissed the "freeze" in Pisgat Ze'ev, but for different reasons. "Pisgat Ze'ev doesn't interest the Americans, nor does it interest the Palestinians," he said. "Both agreed a long time ago that the large neighborhoods in Jerusalem would remain a part of Israel. The problems are these provocative settlements in the heart of the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem." Margalit said such construction posed an obstacle to a final peace agreement, and the housing being built there now would eventually be evacuated, "just like Gush Katif." He said the "double messages" being sent by the government regarding east Jerusalem "are a fitting example of the negative image Israel has in the world today. We're seen as a country that is refusing to make peace with its neighbors." Therefore, Margalit said there were but two viable options: "The first is to arrive at a political agreement with the Palestinians, which would include the evacuation of settlers from east Jerusalem. The second is simply a third intifada, which will happen very soon if the other option doesn't happen first. I see the tension in east Jerusalem - their patience is waning. At this point, every little thing could set off a very large explosion." But Segev brushed off Margalit's remarks and said they were all the more reason to continue building. "I don't see Margalit's predictions on the horizon" he said. "We certainly shouldn't worry about threats. Does that mean we're supposed to give up control of Jerusalem? Prevent people from living in certain neighborhoods? No. The opposite. We have to do what we can to guarantee Jewish rights to live in the capital. "My job is to strengthen Jerusalem. To make sure that there are apartments here, and that this is a viable city to live in, and that all residents have access to all parts of the city," he said.