A construction site in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in the Jerusalem area… (Abir Sultan / EPA )
JERUSALEM -- The Jerusalem district planning committee has granted approval to build another 1,200 housing units in Gilo, expanding the Jewish neighborhood built on Jerusalem-area land seized by Israel in 1967.
It was the latest in a series of similar development decisions that have followed the United Nations vote in November granting the Palestinian Authority its request for non-member observer state status. Planning committee member Moshe Montag told Israel Radio on Tuesday that the plan had been submitted more than a year ago but that procedures had been blocked for diplomatic reasons -- until now.
“Unfortunately, it takes a drama, terror attack or U.N. vote to release construction in Jerusalem, our capital, and this is absurd,” Montag said.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ambassadors: “Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.”
“All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem,” he said. “We are not going to change that.”
The U.S. is “deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week, following approval of a 1,500-apartment project in a different part of the Jerusalem area, Ramat Shlomo.
Palestinians say such development projects further divide Arab neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area from the West Bank and in some cases chip away at land they claim for a future state.
Separately, steps have been taken to complete recognition of the Ariel University Center -- a large academic institute in the Israeli settlement city of Ariel on the West Bank -- as a full-fledged university. The decision was reached earlier this year but had awaited final approval from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which came Monday evening.
Netanyahu welcomed the new university that would further “strengthen higher education in Israel.”
Other university presidents have expressed fear that the university, the first new one to open in Israel in 40 years, will eat into already shrinking budgets for higher education.
Lawmaker Zehava Galon of Meretz criticized the move to local media, saying, “This is not an academic decision but a political one aimed at serving Netanyahu's election campaign.”
In less than a month, Israel is holding general elections. Polls have consistently given Netanyahu's ruling party the lead. They also show competition from more conservative, pro-settlement circles opposed to a Palestinian state growing stronger.
The Gilo construction project is part of a much larger development push throughout the greater Jerusalem area, said Hagit Ofran of the veteran anti-settlement Israeli organization Peace Now.
“It looks like Netanyahu is taking advantage of every single moment left before elections to put more facts on the ground that will make reaching an agreement even more difficult,” she said.
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