Construction has begun on new Jewish housing near Arab al-Suahara with permission from Jerusalem city hall, which is one of the owners of the property.

The area is surrounded to the north, south and west with homes in the Palestinian neighborhood and to the east is bordered by the main road of the neighborhood. This will be the sole access road for the new settlement to the southeast of Jerusalem.

The area covers 3.5 dunams and the contractor, Bemuna, plans to build three 7-8 story buildings, comprising 62-66 apartments. Construction began two months ago.

Planning authorities approved the plans in 2000, at a time when former prime minister Ehud Olmert served as mayor of the city and encouraged Jewish settlement in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods.

A spokesman for the municipality said Sunday night that the new venture is part of a plan for the East Talpiot neighborhood, and noted that the building permits and the entire process are legal and in line with the authorized city plans.

On behalf of Mayor Nir Barkat, the spokesman said that "construction in the legal municipal territory of Jerusalem is not a settlement just like construction in Tel Aviv is not a settlement."

The spokesman added that the Jerusalem Municipality is advancing two plans for the Arab citizens of the city, situated near the new construction project, with similar areas under construction, and in line with authorization provided by the local authority.

Attorney Dani Seidemann, the legal counsel for Ir Amim, a non-profit organization that works toward coexistence in Jerusalem, insists that the plot on which the new construction is taking place is part of the urban continuity of the Arab neighborhood.

Seidemann says that the area was never included in the area on which Talpiot East was built and that it had never been planned to be part of a Jewish neighborhood.

He says that official maps and aerial photographs show clearly that the only connection to East Talpiot is a pedestrian walkway on the western outskirts of the plot.

The attorney also said that construction for Palestinian residents of al-Sawakhra is restricted by the city planning to three apartment structures of no more than two floors per dunam, which is approximately 37.5 percent construction rights. On the other hand, on the land where the settlement will be constructed there is permission to construct 18.9 apartments per dunam on as many as eight floors, which constitutes 143 percent construction rights.

In a letter to Barkat, Seidemann asks to know how the municipality, which supports Jewish construction in the heart of Arab neighborhoods, intends to promote the construction of Palestinian housing in the middle of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

He pointed to an interview Barkat gave last August in which he said that he understands the concerns of the Jewish residents on French Hill because Palestinians were purchasing apartments there, and considers it legitimate for them to preserve a homogenous, ethnic make up of the neighborhood.

Seidemann asked how the municipality can encourage, on the one hand, Jewish construction in Palestinian neighborhoods, and on the other support Jewish residents seeking to keep Arabs from moving into their neighborhoods.