Israeli officials vow to build for Jews, demolish Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem

By Amy Teibel, AP
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Israelis: No halt to east Jerusalem construction

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition partners vowed Thursday to keep building Jewish homes and demolishing unauthorized Palestinian homes in contested east Jerusalem — despite indications the Israeli leader has put the brakes on both.

The United States opposes both at this delicate time, when indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians have just begun. The remarks by Netanyahu’s partners show the thin tightrope he has to walk in trying to address the conflicting demands of his political allies at home and Israel’s strongest ally abroad.

On Thursday, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party reasserted his claim that Israel would never freeze construction in east Jerusalem — the sector of the holy city that Palestinians claim for a future capital.

“We will build in every part of Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people’s homeland for eternity, and I made this clear to our American friends and colleagues as well,” Yishai, whose ministry is authorized to approve Jerusalem construction, told Shas’ Yom Leyom weekly.

He was also quoted as saying he plans to convene the Jerusalem planning committee soon to move ahead with new construction projects.

A day earlier, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said demolitions of unauthorized Palestinian homes had been postponed in the past so as not to hurt efforts to renew peace talks. But demolitions, he said, would resume within days.

“If there was a postponement, it’s no longer in effect,” he told parliament.

The demolitions have become a hot-button issue because the Palestinians claim that Israel gives them no choice but to build in east Jerusalem without authorization because it gives them very few permits.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem had no comment on the ministers’ remarks.

But in a statement, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on his fellow government ministers not to make inflammatory statements about Jerusalem.

“These statements hurt Israel’s interests with the U.S. and the world in general,” said Barak, whose centrist Labor Party is the most moderate member of the governing coalition. “These statements could make Israel look like it is obstructing peace, and undermine its international standing.”

Sovereignty over Jerusalem is the most emotionally charged issue dividing Israel and the Palestinians.

The eastern sector of the city, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and immediately annexed, is home to a contested site that houses both the sole remnant of the biblical Jewish Temples and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

About 193,000 Jews have moved to east Jerusalem in the past 43 years, where they live alongside 263,000 Palestinians.

Netanyahu maintains Israel has the right to build in all of Jerusalem and says he won’t share the city with the Palestinians. But the Palestinians, the U.S. and the rest of the international community do not recognize the annexation and presume sovereignty will be shared between Israel and the Palestinians under any final agreement.

Both the Jewish construction and the demolition of Palestinian homes have provoked sharp criticism from the Obama administration. Israel’s announcement in March, during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, that it planned to build 1,600 homes for Jews in an existing neighborhood infuriated the Americans and provoked the Palestinians to postpone the U.S.-mediated talks until earlier this month.

But an Associated Press investigation in late April revealed that Israel had imposed a de facto moratorium freeze on new Jewish construction in east Jerusalem after the Biden visit. And the last demolition of a Palestinian home in east Jerusalem was carried out in October.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Israel razed 449 unauthorized Palestinian homes between 2004 and 2009.

Both developments suggest Netanyahu might have a quiet understanding with Washington to keep declaring its right to build Jewish homes and demolish unauthorized Palestinian ones while in practice doing neither.

Both ministers are members of Netanyahu’s coalition and would be privy to his decisions.

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