Reporting from Jerusalem — The city of Jerusalem gave the go-ahead Monday to a new Jewish housing project in the Arab-dominated neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, raising the prospect of more Palestinian evictions in East Jerusalem.
The privately owned development would consist of 13 apartments in two structures. Construction is not expected to break ground for at least two years as the project works its way through the city and federal approval process.
But the plans are already stirring controversy in the hotly disputed neighborhood. Over the last 18 months, Sheik Jarrah has turned into a battleground between Palestinian residents and right-wing Jewish groups, both claiming the neighborhood belongs to them.
Several Palestinian families have been evicted and replaced by Jewish renters. Others are fighting in court to keep their homes.
"It's a very sensitive idea that is going to attract a lot of public attention," said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes Israeli settlement construction. "Taking families out of their homes is a strong action."
Sheik Jarrah is also the location of the former Shepherd Hotel, a historic structure once owned by the mufti of Jerusalem, where demolition began last month to make way for 20 Jewish housing units. President Obama and other world leaders have said that such projects will complicate Mideast peace talks because Palestinians hope to make East Jerusalem their capital of a future state.
Israel seized control of Sheik Jarrah during the 1967 Middle East War, but Jewish families lived there before fleeing in 1948, when Jordan occupied the area during Israel's war for independence.
City officials said they could not block the latest project based on the religion or ethnicity of applicants or residents and said new construction was needed to accommodate the growing population.
"We don't discriminate based on religion or gender or anything else," said Jerusalem spokesman Elie Isaacson. "It's illegal and immoral."
According to the Haaretz newspaper, two private U.S. companies are behind the new project, represented by activist Chaim Silverstein, who has been involved in other Jewish housing projects in Arab communities.
The group appears to include heirs of former Jewish owners of the Sheik Jarrah land, Ofran said.
Israeli courts have allowed Jews to reclaim East Jerusalem land they lost in 1948, but Palestinians complain that they do not have similar rights for property they fled in West Jerusalem.
"Continuing Jewish settlement in Sheik Jarrah will seriously harm relations with the Palestinians and will break all agreements that Jewish neighborhoods will remain under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods will be under Palestinian sovereignty," Yosef Alalu, a city councilman from the liberal Meretz party, told Haaretz.