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Planning for 500 East Jerusalem homes picks up pace

US blasts ‘unfortunate’ committee decision to approve controversial project in Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which could break ground in next six months

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of a construction site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, December 2012 (AP/Dan Balilty)
Illustrative photo of a construction site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, December 2012 (AP/Dan Balilty)

During an hastily arranged meeting Monday, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee approved the construction of 500 apartments in the capital’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which is situated over the Green Line in East Jerusalem.

Although the original plan was for 640 units, that number was cut down during Monday’s meeting, which was organized the night before at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to push ahead with the project.

The US swiftly condemned the decision to go ahead with the project.

“It is unfortunate that after the unequivocal and unanimous position last week of the international community opposing construction in Jerusalem at this sensitive time, authorities chose to move forward,” said Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the US State Department.

“We continue to engage at the highest levels with the Israeli government to make our position absolutely clear that we view settlement activity as illegitimate and unequivocally oppose unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem,” he added

The planning committee tasked with reviewing and approving major construction plans for Jerusalem, as well as considering any objections, is comprised of representatives from relevant government ministries, local authorities, engineers and architects, and operates under the auspices of the Interior Ministry.

The Ramat Shlomo scheme is part of a larger development project that envisions some 1,000 apartments in Jerusalem neighborhoods that lie over the pre-1967 line which separated Israeli and Jordanian-controlled areas of the city, the so-called Green Line.

Peace Now responded that the construction approval will only serve to make Israel’s  relations with the United States even worse.

“The approval adds more oil to the diplomatic fire and the crisis between Israel and the US,” the organization said in a statement. “The continuation of construction is another step toward transforming the idea of two states into a purely theoretical one.”

Peace Now Spokeswoman Hagit Ofran told AFP that the plans had been put on hold since 2006, but that with the new approval, building could begin within six to 12 months.

While Israel considers East Jerusalem part of its capital, the international community has routinely condemned building there as settlement construction that is unhelpful to the peace process with the Palestinians.

Last week Netanyahu gave the go-ahead for 600 homes in Ramat Shlomo and another 400 in Har Homa, both Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem over the Green Line.

Monday’s announcement came amid heightened tensions and a string of violent incidents in Jerusalem. Last week, a prominent Temple Mount activist was shot and seriously injured by a Palestinian suspect, who was later killed in a shootout with police. The shooting was bookended by days of violent protests in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

Last week’s news of the 1,000 homes drew condemnation from the US, EU, Jordan and the Palestinians.

“Israelis’ continued building across the Green Line is “incompatible with their stated desire to live in a peaceful society,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the time.

In early October, Washington leveled especially harsh criticism at Jerusalem for a plan to develop a new neighborhood in the area of Givat Hamatos, saying the East Jerusalem construction would “poison the atmosphere” and distance Israel “from even its closest allies.”

Tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have become “red-hot” according to The Atlantic, that last week reported a “full-blown crisis” between the long-time allies and quoted one senior administration official as calling the Israeli prime minister “a chickenshit.”

The White House later denounced the slur and Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Netanyahu to apologize on behalf of the administration.

AFP and AP contributed to this report. 

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