JERUSALEM — Israel gave preliminary approval Tuesday for building homes for Jews in the heart of an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, a move immediately denounced by Palestinian officials and by peace activists.
The plan for constructing 132 housing units in the Ras al Amud neighborhood, given the go-ahead by a Jerusalem planning commission, must gain final approval from the Interior Ministry. But opponents, noting that Interior Minister Eli Suissa has long supported the project, predicted swift approval.
Palestinian officials warned that the decision--which came amid rising tension between Israelis and Palestinians because of stalled negotiations over the West Bank city of Hebron--could upset the precarious balance in Jerusalem and spark renewed violence.
"It is a clear violation of the peace agreements, which said that Israel would not change the situation in Jerusalem," declared Hatem Abdel Kader, who represents East Jerusalem in the Palestinian Legislative Council. "This is a very dangerous issue, and it will not be good for the peace process."
Abdel Kader said the council will consider possible responses during its regular meeting today in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
In September, another perceived change in Jerusalem's status quo--Israel's decision to open an entrance to a historic tunnel in the Old City--provoked violence that left more than 75 Palestinians and Israelis dead.
The status of Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians alike claim as their capital, is to be determined in talks that have been delayed since the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May. And despite more than two months of negotiations, the two sides remain stymied on the issue of Hebron, unable to agree on a timetable and conditions for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the last major West Bank city still controlled by Israel.
But Israeli officials, including Suissa and representatives of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, said they welcome the commission's action on Ras al Amud and believe that the project will enhance coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.
"I hope . . . that the Jews will build and the Arabs will build and . . . all will be well in the end," Suissa told Israel Radio. "I certainly support and welcome the decision."
The new Jewish enclave, financed in large part by wealthy entrepreneur and former Los Angeles County resident Irving I. Moskowitz, will be built inside Ras al Amud, a neighborhood that is home to about 11,000 Palestinians. Moskowitz, who now lives in Miami, has donated millions of dollars to support Jewish settlements in contested areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The U. S. opposes the expansion of settlements, believing that the effort runs counter to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which under the previous Israeli government was based on an approach of trading land for peace.
In August, Netanyahu's conservative government lifted a four-year freeze on settlement activity. Since then, Israel has announced the sale of 3,000 West Bank apartments and approved construction of thousands of housing units in several settlements.
Still, peace activists called Tuesday's decision unprecedented, saying it was the first time since Israel captured the eastern portion of the city in 1967 that Jerusalem officials have approved building homes for Jews in an Arab area.
"This is the first attempt to place a Jewish neighborhood within the fabric of a Palestinian neighborhood," said Daniel Seidman, an attorney for the group Peace Now. Seidman said the organization, which argued against the project at the planning commission, will continue to battle it in court if the plan gains ministerial approval.