Israel has approved construction of 900 homes in East Jerusalem, a watchdog group said Thursday, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially formed a new coalition.
The new homes will be built in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, following a decision late Wednesday by the city’s district planning committee, Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran told AFP.
“They’ve approved the request, and now they’re allowed to build,” she said.
However, an Interior Ministry ministry spokesperson downplayed the significance of the committee decision, telling The Times of Israel that it was a technicality concerned with the stages of development of the project that had been previously limited to 500 units until an access road junction was completed. Following the decision, the limit was raised to 900.
“These are not new apartments,” the ministry spokesperson said, “it is a project that was approved years ago.”
In March 2010, the interior ministry announced a plan to build 1,600 homes in Ramat Shlomo. The announcement came as US Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, provoking fierce American opposition and souring relations with Washington for months.
In November 2013, the plan passed a further stage of approval but construction was held up because the planning committee said new roads must be built first, Peace Now said.
“The plan [for 900 units] has been approved even though they don’t have the roads,” Ofran said.
Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in 1967 and says it retains the right to build in any part of the capital, though housing announcements often draw international and Palestinian condemnations.
In early October, Washington leveled especially harsh criticism at Jerusalem for a plan to develop a new neighborhood in the area of Givat Hamatos on the southern end of the city, saying the East Jerusalem construction would “poison the atmosphere” and distance Israel “from even its closest allies.”
US President Barack Obama’s administration has had a cold relationship with Netanyahu, notably over continued construction over the Green Line, a move which the international community views as a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
In his reelection campaign in March, Netanyahu vowed to step up construction in East Jerusalem.
The move was authorized as Netanyahu was in the final stages of piecing together a coalition government that will include the right-wing Jewish Home, which strongly backs settlement construction and opposes a Palestinian state.