As 26 Palestinian inmates were released from Israeli prisons overnight Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar agreed to expedite four East Jerusalem construction plans, including one which would significantly expand the size of an already contentious neighborhood.
Earlier this week, in part to offset the political fallout from the release and counter criticism from the right, Netanyahu’s office announced that the government would approve tenders for the construction of 1,200 new housing units across the pre-1967 Green Line in Jerusalem.
Among the projects to be pushed through, according to Tuesday night’s decision, is a plan to approve 1,500 new apartment units in Ramat Shlomo, and a measure to allow construction of additional rooms in existing apartments in the neighborhood.
Announcement of construction in Ramat Shlomo, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood situated over the Green Line, precipitated diplomatic tension between the US and Israel during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in March 2010.
Netanyahu and Sa’ar also gave the green light for advancing a tourism and archaeology center adjacent to the City of David — the site of an ongoing archaeological dig and a political flashpoint on the slopes below the Temple Mount — and a national park on Mount Scopus’s eastern slopes.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s efforts to offset right-wing criticism of the prisoner release through settlement construction will prove successful. Last week the pro-settlement Jewish Home party said in a statement that “the attempt to link the release of the murderers to construction tenders is manipulative and morally wrong. It will be better if the prime minister does not release murderers and does not build. This looks like a despicable attempt to free murderers and tarnish the settlement enterprise.”
An Israeli official last week said the Americans and Palestinians were aware of the Israeli building plans, which were made clear before peace talks resumed in the summer.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected the Israeli official’s comments and said, “We don’t accept any settlement bids and Israel should stop these acts to give negotiations the opportunity to succeed.”
“For us, all settlements are illegal and Israel should top putting obstacles in the way of peace and all its acts in this regard are illegal and void,” said Rdeneh.
The Palestinians consider settlements a major obstacle to establishing a state that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel has since built widely over the Green Line inside Jerusalem, and at dozens of settlements in the West Bank, that are home to some 550,000 Israelis.
Just after midnight on Tuesday, thousands of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah to greet 21 prisoners released from Israeli custody to the West Bank as part of arrangements for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Five other Palestinian prisoners were released earlier in Gaza.
All 26 were convicted murderers, most of them jailed for crimes committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.