No freeze in east Jerusalem building

No freeze in east Jerusa

Construction projects are continuing to move forward throughout parts of the capital annexed after the Six Day War, The Jerusalem Post has learned, despite remarks made this week by Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias that not a single construction project had been authorized in the West Bank or east Jerusalem since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office at the end of March. The construction work continues as Israel, the US and the Palestinians argue about all building beyond the pre-1967 Green Line, with the Palestinians demanding a full freeze as a precondition for resuming peace talks, the US urging a freeze but not as a precondition, and Israel expressing a readiness to weigh a freeze in the future. In addition, Haim Erlich, the coordinator for policy development at Ir Amim, an NGO which wants Jerusalem "equitably shared" by Israelis and Palestinians, this week produced a list of more than 20 new projects in east Jerusalem that were currently being considered for approval by the municipality. "Almost all of these projects will be authorized," Erlich claimed. "The only question is when." Nonetheless, Elisha Peleg, a city councilman for the Likud Party who has been critical of the lack of building permits for projects in east Jerusalem, said he had seen firsthand a number of projects rejected for authorization - because of political considerations. While the bulk of the ongoing housing projects are being built on privately-owned land and not officially subject to the Housing and Construction Ministry's authorization, at least one of them - a three-pronged construction project for more than 750 housing units in the northeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev - has moved forward during Netanyahu's term in office. In a Channel 1 television interview on Tuesday evening, Attias said that "no tenders have been issued for building inside or outside the settlement blocs or in east Jerusalem." Attias was not available for comment on Thursday, but a spokesman from his office verified that it did not consider the Pisgat Ze'ev project to be "new," as the original contracts had been submitted during Ehud Olmert's prime ministerial term. Furthermore, the spokesman said he could not comment on ongoing private projects in east Jerusalem, as these were not under his ministry's jurisdiction. He refused to comment further. Attias had made similar comments regarding building plans, or lack thereof, in late-August, against the backdrop of American pressure to freeze construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Days after those comments were made, it was revealed that the Jerusalem Municipality was mulling plans for the construction of a large housing complex in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, and additional projects in other eastern neighborhoods. While the municipality itself is separated from Attias's ministry, Erlich added that the municipality's district planning committee, through which all applications for building authorization must pass, was connected to the government. "Every project must go through the district planning committee, which is made up of government representatives," Erlich told the Post on Wednesday. "And you can see from their decisions that while some projects are given the go-ahead, others, often in extremely sensitive areas, are not. What else could this be besides political considerations?" Using the Shepherd Hotel - a controversial construction project in Sheikh Jarrah that has been delayed for years due to political pressure - as an example, Erlich asked why former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski had never authorized the building permits for the site, but current Mayor Nir Barkat had. "What changed suddenly, except for the name of the mayor?" Erlich asked. Attias's comments also conflict with those made recently by other government officials - including Netanyahu, who has said that Israel has not implemented a building freeze in the West Bank and intends to complete the construction of nearly 3,000 housing units that have already been approved. Nonetheless, Peleg said that Attias's statements were true and that he knew of several projects that had been rejected because of political considerations. "It's absolutely correct, and it's very grave," Peleg said of Attias's comments. "I recently tried to bring this topic up on the daily schedule at City Hall, and the mayor wouldn't allow it," he added. "The municipality is not authorizing new tenders for construction projects, either, and they're doing it out of political considerations, which is in violation of the law." While both Erlich and Peleg - representing opposite sides of the political spectrum - agreed that politics were heavily influencing the authorization of construction in east Jerusalem, the two agreed on little else. "There were times when the Jerusalem municipality was not authorizing any building in east Jerusalem," Erlich said. "And now they're authorizing a number of projects. It shows that it is up to them, and they are making the decisions. Maybe the Housing and Construction Ministry isn't directly involved, but construction projects are certainly going ahead." Although a nearly year-long delay on the Pisgat Ze'ev project had sparked rumors over the summer that the government was flirting with a de-facto freeze on construction in east Jerusalem, those rumors were put to rest in September, when the Israel Lands Authority - which together with the Housing and Construction Ministry owned the plots of land - announced that the final bids for the land had been authorized. The ILA announcement ascribed the delay to a drawn-out legal battle with the contractors, who were upset when their original bids, made in October 2008, were rejected by the government. After a series of hearings and legal appeals, three of those contractors won the rights to the old bids, which had been made when Olmert was still in office. But because the prices agreed upon for the old bids were likely considerably lower than what new bids would fetch for the same plots of land, the revival and subsequent acceptance of the bids sparked speculation that the move had been made not only out of legal concerns, but a possible desire not to have the project classified as "new construction," at least on paper.