U.S. Slams Israel's 'Unfortunate' Building Plan in East Jerusalem

Palestinian negotiation Erekat calls Jerusalem panel's approval of 500 new East Jerusalem homes a 'slap in face'; State Department says U.S. continuing to enagage with Israeli government to make its stance against settlement construction clear.

AFP

The United States on Monday condemned the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee's decision to promote a construction plan for hundreds of new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, beyond the Green Line.

"It is unfortunate that after the unequivocal and unanimous position last week of the international community, opposing construction in East Jerusalem, at this sensitive time the Israeli authorities chose to move forward," said Jen Psaki, State Department Spokesman.

"We continue to engage at the highest level with the Israeli government to make our position absolutely clear – that we view settlement activity as illegitimate and that we unequivocally oppose unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem."

The decision "flies in the face of Israel's statements about commitment to the two-state solution," Psaki added.

The construction plan is one of two in East Jerusalem declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, reportedly as part of the response to Palestinian violence in the capital. The original plan for Ramat Shlomo was for 640 housing units, but the planning committee has only approved 500. The U.S. administration has already condemned construction in both areas.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called the decision "a slap in the face."

"With the situation in occupied Jerusalem at a boiling point, Israel’s latest settlement announcement is a slap in the face to Secretary [of State John] Kerry, to the international community, to the Palestinian people, and to peace," he said. "The message is clear: the Netanyahu government chooses settlements over negotiations, colonization over the two-state solution, and apartheid over equality and coexistence.

"The international community must realize that statements alone will not stop Israeli settlements, protect the Palestinian people, or save the two-state solution," Erekat added.

"The international community has the responsibility to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing violations of international law and signed agreements, including its dramatic escalation of violations against our people in occupied East Jerusalem through settlement construction, forced displacement, and denial of our right to worship. The international community must support our right to access international treaties and organizations, including the Rome Statute."

Responding to the U.S. statement, Peace Now said that this time, Netanyahu can't blame the leftist organization for the crisis with the United States. The "harsh American condemnation is in his name only," the group said.

The construction plan is to extend over 76 dunams (19 acres) in the northern part of the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighborhood and will bring it very close to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina. This plan was discussed a few years ago, but rejected when it was realized that in order to build the neighborhood, land would have to be expropriated from Palestinian owners.

That is because while the neighborhood itself is built on Jewish-owned land, the road to it passes through Palestinian-owned land. However, the area of the plan was earmarked for future construction in Jerusalem’s new master plan, despite vigorous objections from environmental groups.

Although the areas in question are privately owned, the plan was submitted to the district planning committee by the Jerusalem municipality and Moriah, a municipality-owned infrastructure company. Planning officials said Sunday they believed the submission was made by these bodies so the expropriation of land could be moved forward.

The new plan joins an older one to expand Ramat Shlomo that was approved by the district planning committee in 2010. That sparked a major diplomatic crisis with the United States because the approval came during an official visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Israel.

A crisis with the United States also broke out last week over the decision to advance the current plan. A few hours after the prime minister announced the construction in East Jerusalem, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that such construction is not “conducive to what they state they want to achieve, which is peace in the region and a two-state solution.” Psaki said U.S. policy was clear and “continues to oppose unilateral steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on Jerusalem.”