Silwan Emil Salman
East Jerusalem Photo by Emil Salman
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Settlers said on Wednesday they are building new housing at a religious school on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, despite Palestinian and international criticism of Israeli construction in the part of the city claimed by the Palestinians.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have stalled over the issue of settlement construction. Israel has never bowed to demands to curb construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and building there goes on constantly.

The new construction began on 18 apartments in three buildings in a small settler enclave around the Beit Orot Yeshiva, or religious seminary, on the Mount of Olives across from the Old City, near several Arab neighborhoods. The school is funded by American Jewish activist Irving Moskowitz, who has also backed settler enclaves inside Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, causing considerable friction with local Palestinians.

Avi Lerner, spokesman for the school, said the buildings, which have Israeli construction permits, will house staff and their families. The new buildings will "strengthen the Israeli and Jewish presence in Jerusalem, both on the east and west sides," he said.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967 and annexed it, a move not recognized internationally. Since then, Israel has built a ring of Jewish neighborhoods around East Jerusalem, home now to about 200,000 people.

In addition, settler groups have bought property and built housing in established Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including the Arab Quarter of the Old City, and this one on the Mount of Olives. Palestinians charge that Israel is trying to turn the whole city Jewish and eventually drive the Palestinians out.

Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement Peace Now group, said the project "harms the chances of getting to a peace agreement in Jerusalem."

Jerusalem municipal spokesman Elie Isaacson said the construction is a normal part of the city's development.

"We approve building all over the city for people of all denominations," Isaacson said. "There is no (construction) freeze in Jerusalem."

Three weeks after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed in September, a 10-month Israeli freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements expired, and Israel refused to renew it. Israel also captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians claim the territories for a future state.

Palestinians say they will not return to the direct talks unless Israel extends the moratorium and applies it to East Jerusalem as well. Israel refused, and as a result of the deadlock, Washington abandoned efforts to restart the direct talks and has begun a new round of mediated talks instead.

With negotiations in disarray, Palestinian leaders have raised the idea of making a unilateral declaration of statehood.

But Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Wednesday such a move would not bring a state closer.

Fayyad has been working on building institutions for a state that could function regardless of the outcome of peace talks with Israel.