A sub-committee of the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee on Monday gave preliminary approval for a plan to build 1,500 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
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After hearing objections by Palestinian residents of Shoafat, where the expansion is meant to take place, the sub-committee decided to reduce the number of homes intended for construction from 1,700 to 1,500, and ruled that an archaeological site nearby must be preserved.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said the project still must go through several additional planning stages, and it could be years before final approval and construction.
"This is a move that was planned in advance from above, that is designed to eliminate any chance of an agreement with the Palestinians," said Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yosef Alalu of Meretz.
Arab residents of Shoafat say the land designated for nearby Ramat Shlomo was seized from them in the 1970s.
"I asked the rhetorical question why not even a single plan has been submitted by the Israel Lands Administration to expand a Palestinian neighborhood on state land or appropriated land," said Sami Arshid, a lawyer who appeared before the planning board yesterday to object to the project on behalf of Shoafat residents.
After hearing the objections, the planning board reduced the number of homes intended for construction from 1,600 to 1,500 and ruled that an archaeological site nearby must be preserved.
An official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said that the decision did not represent new construction plans, but was rather a new stage in an existing project.
"These are not new homes," the official said. "The intention to build them was publicized years ago, and what happened today was just a discussion on objections to the plan. This is just another planning stage, not the beginning of construction."
The committee will reconvene on Tuesday in emergency session to approve another project, this one for hundreds of homes in Givat Hamatos, a Jewish neighborhood in the south of the city. It too is located on the other side of the Green Line.
The plan for the expansion of Ramat Shlomo was approved in March 2010, during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The approval sparked an unprecedented diplomatic crisis between Washington and Jerusalem, as a result of which the plan, along with additional construction projects in East Jerusalem, was suspended.
Israel then expedited the process as a retaliatory measure in the wake of the United Nations decision last month to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state.
Construction tenders will also to be published soon for another 800 homes in Gilo as well as 187 in Givat Ze'ev, as part of the government's announcement of plans to build 3,000 new residential units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In the wake of the UN vote, Israel also planned to advance a long-frozen project for the E-1 area, which covers an area that links the city of Jerusalem with the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim.
The announcement garnered severe international criticism, including from close allies Britain and France. A number of European countries summoned the Israeli ambassadors to their countries to convey their disapproval, and vowed to consider further measures should Israel not rescind the move.
The Palestinian Authority condemned Monday's decision, with presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh describing it as "a flagrant defiance of the will of the entire international community."
President Mahmoud Abbas has instructed United Nations envoy Riyad Mansour to contact representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to stop Israeli settlement plans in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported.
An aide to Abbas said the president was furious at the announcement and instructed Mansour to immediately contact the UN envoys of the U.S., U.K., Russia, China and France.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms these Israeli actions and the determination of Israel to continue expanding settlements and in the process undermining the two-state solution," said senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.
"These are very dangerous and alarming steps. The Israeli government is showing its determination to contravene the will of the international community," the top peace negotiator said.
There was no immediate American response to the Ramat Shlomo plan, but the U.S. State Department on Monday called Israel's settlement activity "contrary to U.S. policy", and warned that it could derail efforts to reach a two-state solution.
"The United States has underscored privately and publicly its opposition to all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations, and risk prejudging final status issues and the outcome of those negotiations," said the State Department. "This includes building in the E-1 area, as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution."
"We have made clear to the Israeli government that such action is contrary to U.S. policy, just as we have been clear about this issue in prior ," it added. "The United States and the international community expect all parties to play a constructive role in efforts to achieve peace. We are urging the parties to cease unilateral actions and take concrete steps to return to direct negotiations so all the issues can be discussed and the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security can be realized."
The district board will hear a plan for the construction of 900 housing units designated to be part of a new Jewish neighborhood built on the site of mobile homes that had been used to house Ethiopian immigrants. The site is near Har Homa, which was controversial when Benjamin Netanyahu built it in 1997 during his first term as prime minister.
The district board will also hear a plan recommending both the Givat Hamatos project and construction of new housing units in the nearby Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, mainly by adding floors to existing buildings.
An official in the Prime Minister's Office played down the Ramat Shlomo project, saying the housing units weren't new in the sense that "the plan to build them was released years ago, and what happened today was just a hearing on opposition to the plan."
"This is only an additional planning stage, not the start of construction," the official said.
The Ramat Shlomo project was discussed yesterday by a subcommittee of the district planning board that has the authority to expedite construction plans that have been stalled for a long time. But Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said the project must still go through several additional planning stages, and it could be years before final approval and construction.
Tzipi Livni, the former Kadima chairwoman who now heads the party Hatnuah, objected to the Ramat Shlomo construction, which was approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee.
"The construction in Ramat Shlomo represents everything that's problematic about the Netanyahu government: housing solutions giving preference to the ultra-Orthodox in the guise of a national interest that is setting the world against us, placing Jerusalem under a magnifying glass and [introducing] international question marks," she said. "Serious national damage."
The construction project has been promoted by ultra-Orthodox parties, who see it as part of the solution to the housing shortage for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said the plan was a "significant and positive step by the ministry to improve the housing issue while strengthening the city of Jerusalem." He said the ministry would continue to work to increase available housing "for the entire population of the city of Jerusalem, and the entire country."