The Jerusalem Municipality approved the construction of 566 new homes in East Jerusalem on Sunday, in a vote that had been pushed back from December in order to avoid angering the outgoing administration of former US president Barack Obama. The Palestinians condemned the decision as an explicit violation of a recent anti-settlement resolution at the United Nations.
The homes — which are slated to be built in the neighborhoods of Ramot, Ramat Shlomo and Pisgat Ze’ev — were set to be approved for construction in December, but the measure was pulled from the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee’s agenda at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Army Radio reported at the time.
The December vote to approve the homes — a week after a United National Security Council resolution called on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem” — was scheduled to take place the morning of a speech by former US secretary of state John Kerry, in which he went on to label settlements as the primary obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
While much of the international community considers these residential areas as settlements, Israel considers them neighborhoods of annexed East Jerusalem and argues that they will be part of Israel in any negotiated peace agreement.
Some 430,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.
The announcement of construction projects in East Jerusalem throughout Obama’s eight-year term repeatedly led to diplomatic scuffles between Washington and Jerusalem, most notably the announcement of the approval of over 1,000 homes in Ramat Shlomo in 2010 during a visit by then-vice president Joe Biden.
Senior officials said that move was made without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s knowledge. According to a diplomatic cable leaked in 2016, Netanyahu turned to European leaders to help patch up ties with Obama in the wake of the affair.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the vote had been delayed until now due to pressure from the Obama administration, which was particularly critical of Israeli settlement policy in his final month in office.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat praised Sunday’s approval while also taking a jab at Obama, saying, “I hope that an era has ended and from now we will continue to build and and to develop Jerusalem for the benefit of [the city’s] residents,” according to the Hebrew-language Walla News website.
Turgeman also hailed the move in a Facebook post Sunday morning, describing the go-ahead for the construction as “just the opening salvo in the approval of additional [building] plans throughout the city,” while adding that “we will continue to build together in Jerusalem! We will continue to strengthen the capital of Israel!”
He also noted that the approval coincided “with the entrance of a new American president,” with US President Donald Trump being sworn in only two days before.
“The rules of the game have changed with Donald Trump’s arrival as president,” he told AFP. “We no longer have our hands tied as in the time of Barack Obama. Now we can finally build.”
Turgeman said that plans for some 11,000 other homes were also in process in East Jerusalem, though he did not say when they could be moved forward.
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the decision violated December’s UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which he said “emphasized the illegality of Israeli settlements.”
“We call on Security Council for urgent action based on resolution 2334, to put an end to the extremist policy of the Israeli government which is destroying the two-state solution,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement.”
Jerusalem Municipality officials had eagerly awaited Trump’s inauguration to go ahead with large-scale building plans in East Jerusalem, with one member of the Jerusalem Municipality Planning and Construction Committee saying in November that “we must send a message to Trump that in Jerusalem, we build.”
Trump is viewed as being more favorable to Israeli settlement policies than Obama, as he has repeatedly declared that he will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem despite the city’s disputed status and nominated for his ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who is the head of American Friends of Bet El Institutions — a group that raises funds for the West Bank settlement of Beit El’s seminary, a news organization affiliated with the settler movement and other activities in the settlement.
Both Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who Trump appointed as a senior adviser and said will be his point-man on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, have reportedly donated to Friedman’s organization.
The Jerusalem District Zoning Committee was also scheduled to deliberate the approval of an additional 5,600 homes in East Jerusalem during the December meeting, including 2,600 housing units in Gilo, 2,600 in Givat Hamatos and 400 in Ramot.
There was no immediate report on why these homes were not approved on Sunday or when the committee will give them the go-ahead.
AFP contributed to this report.