Nir Barkat
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at a meeting in April 2010. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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The office of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday defended plans to demolish Palestinian houses in the city's eastern sector to make way for a tourist center, after Defense Minister Ehud Barak lashed out at authorities over the project.

Barak, who is in the United States for a series of meetings with top officials, faced criticism and demands for explanations after the Jerusalem municipal planning committee decided to destroy 22 houses in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, which it says were built illegally.

"Instead of helping the municipality strengthen the city and confront the serious neglect inherited over many years in the eastern part of the city, the defense minister acts without checking the facts," said a statement from the mayor's office.

"The new plan for Silwan allows for the addition of thousands of housing units for the Arab sector and the resolution of hundreds of construction violations. Barak should be one of the primary supporters of the plan," the statement continued.

Earlier Tuesday, Barak criticized Jerusalem authorities, saying they "have shown a lack of common sense and sense of timing – and not for the first time."

The city's plan would raze 22 Palestinian homes and construct a tourism center in their place. An additional 66 homes built without the proper permits would receive approval retroactively.

The tourism center for the area, which is called Al Bustan in Arabic and Gan Hamelekh (King's Garden) in Hebrew, is to include restaurants and boutique hotels.

The city said it would help residents of the 22 homes due for demolition to move to other areas of Silwan.

A U.S. spokesman said on Monday that the decision threatened recently restarted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, under American mediation

"This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks," said State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley.

Mayor Nir Barkat said on Monday he would banish the left-wing Meretz party from the municipal council coalition for voting against the project.

Local residents oppose the plan, claiming its purpose is to increase the hold of Jewish settlers over the neighborhood. They have submitted an alternative scheme that does not involve the demolition of homes but still includes the park proposed by the city.