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Plan for 1,400 apartments in contested Jerusalem

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on Sunday. Israeli authorities said Sunday they are moving ahead with a new proposal to build 1,400 apartments in a contested part of Jerusalem, enraging Palestinians who denounced the plan as another settler land grab. Sebastian Scheiner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli authorities said Sunday they are moving ahead with a new proposal to build 1,400 apartments in a contested part of Jerusalem, enraging Palestinians who denounced the plan as another settler land grab.

Palestinians have already broken off peace talks with Israel for refusing to halt construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. They claim these areas, which Israel captured in 1967, and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for a future state. Jewish settlement construction has angered the United States as well.

Jerusalem officials confirmed they were aware of the plan, but would not say when the city's planning committee, which needs to approve such projects, would vote on it.

"Jerusalem City Hall continues to advance construction for Arabs and Jews alike according to the master plan," the spokesman's office said. "New construction in Jerusalem is necessary to the development of the city."

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast war and claims the entire city as its capital. The international community has never recognized the annexation, and the Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of their future state.

The latest plan, to build 1,400 apartments in the existing Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, is being promoted by the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint corporation of the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality.

Gilo is a sprawling development of some 40,000 people on Jerusalem's southern edge, built on lands captured in 1967.

Although construction would likely not begin for years, the Palestinians said the new plan undermined hopes for peace.

"This proves our point that the Israeli government has chosen settlements and not peace," said senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.

He urged the U.S. "to hold the Israeli government fully responsible" for the breakdown in peace talks and to support an upcoming Palestinian initiative to get a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlement construction.

Erekat said Palestinian officials would be meeting with European leaders, whom they hope to persuade to support the move at the U.N.

Word of the plan also elicited a new round of U.S. condemnation.

"We find unilateral actions of this sort to be counterproductive in efforts to get sides to negotiate on the core issues," U.S. Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer said.

Last week, the U.S. harshly criticized Israel for demolishing a historic hotel in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem to make way for 20 apartments for Jews.

If approved, the Gilo project would create territorial contiguity between the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem and the city itself, said Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the dovish Meretz Party.

He predicted it would take years to build the project, which would also require Interior Ministry approval, but warned it would nonetheless damage peace prospects. Since talks broke down in September, the U.S. has been trying to find a compromise formula to bring the sides back to the negotiating table.

"I hope (the plan) will roil the Americans and shake them out of their coma," Margalit said. "If there is any chance to bring the Palestinians back to negotiations, then we have to stop this project."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office refused to comment on the project, noting only that Netanyahu believes Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem should be free to live wherever they want in the city.

Some 200,000 Jews now live in Israeli neighborhoods that ring east Jerusalem, including Gilo.

While Israel considers these areas neighborhoods of the capital, the Palestinians and the international community consider such developments to be illegal settlements, no different from those in the West Bank.

Privately, Palestinian negotiators have said they expect the Jewish areas to remain under Israeli sovereignty under any final peace accord. But construction there antagonizes the Palestinians because they see it cementing Israel's claims to the entire city.

Building there has become increasingly contentious since President Barack Obama called for a full halt to settlement construction after taking office.

An Israeli announcement to build homes in east Jerusalem made while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting early last year caused a chill in relations for several months. Israel was forced to put that project on hold.