Har Homa residents unfazed by criticism of new construction

Renewed international condemnation of a plan to build more than 300 homes in the southeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa was brushed off Sunday by local residents as pure politics. The criticism of the latest building plan, including a rare American rebuke from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the standard Palestinian condemnation, came as Israelis and Palestinians are set to resume peace negotiations this week following last month's conference in Annapolis, with the aim of reaching a final peace agreement by the end of next year. The Jerusalem neighborhood, which overlooks Bethlehem and lies just inside the expanded city limits, north of Jerusalem's southern border with the West Bank, was constructed in the 1990s despite similar international condemnation, leaving veteran residents of the neighborhood with a sense of deja vu. "Har Homa was built despite the opposition of the international community and it will continue to be built despite all sorts of voices from around the world," said neighborhood resident Nahum Lubin, a 35-year-old father of six. The neighborhood, which is viewed by Israelis as a strategically placed buffer against the Palestinians and which city officials say was built on predominantly Jewish-owned land, is now home to 7,000 residents, a city spokeswoman said Sunday. With its relatively affordable housing due to its location on the periphery of the city, the six-year-old Jerusalem neighborhood is made up of a tolerant mix of secular, traditional and Modern Orthodox residents, with a large contingent of French immigrants and a smattering of haredi residents and English-speakers. "These comments really don't interest us; they are just geared for the media," said resident Rami Levy, 40, as he shopped with his wife at the local supermarket for jelly-filled donuts for their three kids for Hanukka. "We will live here, and we will develop this neighborhood and it will be a great place for kids to grow up," Levy said. "This will not be Gush Katif Two," he added, referring to the evacuated Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Still, the security situation has, in the past, affected sales in the sprawling neighborhood - which the city originally envisioned would one day be home to as many as 30,000 residents - with real estate prices seeing volatile ups and downs over the last decade. After an exceptionally good period of marketing the apartments in 1999 and 2000, sales nearly ground to a halt with the outbreak of Palestinian violence seven years ago, especially when the nearby southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo came under repeated Palestinian gunfire. At the time, the violence dissuaded potential buyers from making their home in a neighborhood faced by Arab neighborhoods on its northern side and by PA-ruled Bethlehem to the south. The slowdown in sales prompted the Construction and Housing Ministry to offer special mortgage incentives, including a NIS 50,000 grant, to people buying in the neighborhood in 2001, which helped to stem the slump in sales. Once the violence in Gilo ended, sales in Har Homa again shot up, with the price of a four-room apartment today hovering around $250,000, about $70,000 more than six years ago, residents said. More recently, as violence ebbed in Jerusalem, the news from Har Homa was dominated by the controversy over the placement of a huge cellular phone antenna on the roof of a health clinic in the commercial center of the neighborhood. But the plans to construct 307 new homes in the neighborhood put Har Homa back in the international spotlight. "If the Iranians have a nuclear bomb, it won't matter if there are 300 or 3,000 new apartments built here since they will all be erased [in an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel] and this is what Condoleezza Rice should be focusing on," said Avraham Cohen, 58, who was out walking his dog on a balmy December evening. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Israeli construction plans a violation of the long-stalled, but recently revived road map peace plan, which bans Israeli settlement activity. Erekat, who wrote to Rice last week asking her to block the construction, said the move was "undermining" the Annapolis conference. In contrast to the international community, Israel does not consider construction in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, home to some 180,000 Jewish residents, as settlement construction. Vice Premier Haim Ramon reiterated his long-held view Sunday that Israel should cede Arab neighborhoods of the city to the Palestinians and keep Jewish neighborhoods as part of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, as proposed by former US President Bill Clinton and rejected by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Camp David talks seven years ago. "Whoever wants [the east Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of] Walaja, is endangering our hold on Har Homa," Ramon said in an interview on Israel Radio. Such a territorial swap, however, will not solve the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem. Palestinians claims all of east Jerusalem - including the city's holy sites such as the Temple Mount - as the capital of their future state. Rice said last week that the new apartments would not "help to build confidence" ahead of the planed peace talks. Some neighborhood residents said Sunday that the Israeli government might put off the construction as a result of the international condemnation. "My gut reaction is to be quite concerned," said Shalom Dinerstein, 57, who moved to the area nearly four years ago with his family from the city's Har Nof neighborhood. "I would not be surprised if the government puts off the building project because of the international pressure," he said.