silwan - AP - October 17 2010
A Palestinian pausing after throwing stones during clashes with Border Police in Silwan on Friday. Photo by AP
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The Prime Minister's Office responded last night to international criticism regarding Israel's plans to build 238 new housing units in East Jerusalem, saying that announcements on renewal of construction in Jerusalem are nothing new.

Israel announced Friday its approval of tenders for 238 new housing units in areas of Jerusalem east of the Green Line, which triggered statements by both the U.S. and France saying they were "disappointed" by the announcement.

"We have already said in the past that there is no longer a settlement freeze in Jerusalem," the PMO said in a statement. "Regarding the relationship with the United States, they received notification of the plan before we announced it."

Both the United States and France said they were "disappointed" with the move.

Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias told Haaretz the informal building freeze in East Jerusalem led Palestinians to think of the city as an ordinary settlement and not part of undivided Jerusalem.

"We must not let the Palestinians get used to Jerusalem being part of the talks," he said.

Atias also said that Jerusalem has nowhere to develop but over the Green Line. The tenders, published on Thursday, are for 158 units to be built in Ramot, northwest of Jerusalem and another 80 units Pisgat Ze'ev, northeast of the city.

On Friday, the United States expressed disappointment over reports that Israel had approved tenders for construction of the new housing units.

The Housing Ministry has issued no new tenders for construction in East Jerusalem since March, when tenders published during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden became a point of contention between the United States and Israel.

An informal freeze was subsequently imposed on construction over the Green Line in Jerusalem, including large Jewish neighborhoods like Gilo, Pisgat Ze'ev and Ramat Shlomo. The Prime Minister's Bureau demanded that it be informed of any plans brought before the Regional Planning and Building Committee for approval, and plans considered controversial were shelved.

However, in recent months, two tenders were issued by the Israel Lands Administration for extensive construction in Neveh Ya'akov, north of the city, and in Pisgat Ze'ev, plans for some 600 units have been approved and permits issued.

Neither of those moves led to U.S. protests, apparently because the U.S. is particularly sensitive to construction that expands to new areas, as do the construction in the tenders issued Thursday.

American criticism could also be a reflection of the sensitive nature of Washington-led direct peace talks, with the U.S. wanting to use the tenders issue to push Israel on other matters.

In an effort to maintain a low profile, the Housing Ministry issued the tenders only in real estate publications, and as part of a larger announcement of tenders throughout the country.

The issuing of the tenders on Thursday was reportedly timed for just before the weekend break to lessen international pressure over the decision.

Netanyahu's envoy Isaac Molho had reportedly updated U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell over the past few weeks of the intention to issue the tenders.

Jerusalem expected the decision to be criticized. However, officials hoped the Americans would make do with a statement.

"We were disappointed by the announcement of new tenders in East Jerusalem yesterday. It is contrary to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties," U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said during a press conference in Washington on Friday. Yesterday, France also condemned Israel's construction plans, saying that "France is deeply disappointed" by the decision and urged the Israeli government to reconsider.

Earlier yesterday, Egypt said that Israel's building permits for 238 new housing units in East Jerusalem are a sign that direct peace talks could collapse.

On Friday, the Arab League said it may ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state if Israel continues construction in the settlements.

Islamic states blast construction

Also yesterday, the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned Israel for renewing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and urged the international community to put an end to what it called "Israeli arrogance."

The 238 units are among 1,700 planned for Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line.

A senior minister said the move had been fully coordinated with the Americans, including agreement over the formula of the critical response the United States would make.

Atias, who is considered a moderate and has privately expressed a willingness to renew the building freeze, asked Netanyahu's approval for renewed construction in Jerusalem at the end of the freeze to alleviate a housing shortage and not for ideological reasons, government officials said.

One minister said at end of the week that if Atias had not asked Netanyahu for permission to issue the tenders, the premier would not have initiated such construction himself at this delicate juncture in talks with the Palestinians.

Also on Friday, a number of Palestinians took part in violent protests in Silwan, hurling rocks at Jewish homes and Border Police. One protester was injured by a rubber bullet.