By TOVAH LAZAROFF, KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Construction in Har Homa Photo: CourtesyIsraeli officials on Thursday tried to douse a diplomatic fire Channel 10 ignited with its report about two building projects in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem – of 1,100 units – that have been in the pipeline for years.
These east Jerusalem housing units are a real and official destruction of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process, Chief PLO Negotiator Saeb Erekat said Thursday.
In response, Israeli officials noted that no new approvals had been given for east Jerusalem housing and that the Palestinians understood this.
“The Palestinians continue to look for excuses to escape negotiations," the official said. “In this case as well, they have raced to the microphone with old recycled arguments and incorrect data, rather than doing the one basic thing – to sit and talk on all the issues.”
“Even now, Israel calls for the immediate opening of direct negotiations.”
A US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that continued building in east Jerusalem undermined the peace process.
Kerry has expressed his concern to Israel on settlement activity publicly and privately, she said. The issue of settlement building has come up with the Israelis in the last few weeks, she said.
But she cautioned, what is most important is that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, make the choice to move to negotiations.
Israel has refused to meet the Palestinian demand that it publicly declare a freeze of West Bank settlement activity and Jewish building in east Jerusalem.
But, out of respect for Kerry's efforts, there is a tacit understanding between Israel and Washington that Israel will temporarily refrain from proactively authorizing new building plans over the pre- 1967 lines.
On Wednesday, Channel 10 reported that two contractors were notified that they had been awarded a 300-unit housing project in the east Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Ramot. It also stated that the Construction and Housing Ministry had completed technical plans for 797 units in the east Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Gilo West.
The ministry said that tenders had been issued for Ramot over a year ago. It added that the Gilo West project still needed authorization from a planning council before tenders could be issued.
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s spokesman said it was his understanding that all such projects were frozen and that, for the moment, authorization was not forthcoming.
But the Jerusalem Municipality said it had future plans to build thousands of new units in all parts of Jerusalem, for all sectors of its population. The municipality said new construction is important so that young adults and students can live in the city and buy apartments.
“The municipality has not changed its [building] policy in 40 years. We will continue to build in all parts of the city, based on a master plan for Jews and Arabs,” the municipality said.
It added that authorization for new homes in Ramot was given 15 years go and that it was now working to market tenders for that construction.
“In addition to the new housing units, the Israeli government is practicing ethnic cleansing in occupied east Jerusalem,” Erekat said during a meeting in Jericho with French and Russian presidential envoys.
Erekat said that in the past 10 days Israel has displaced 77 Palestinians after demolishing their homes in the city. The Jerusalem Municipality says the houses were built without permits. Erekat also condemned assaults on Palestinians and their properties by settlers in the West Bank and unidentified assailants in east Jerusalem.
“The Israeli government is a government of settlers and for settlers,” he charged.
“All what this government is doing is part of a strategy to sabotage the efforts of Kerry and the two-state option.”
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the PA leadership was keen on making Kerry’s mission succeed. Abbas also reiterated the Palestinian commitment to achieving a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of a two-state solution.
Abbas’s remarks came during a meeting in Ramallah with Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos. PLO Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yusef said that the Israeli government bears full responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process.
Abu Yusef accused Kerry of visiting the region to “support Israel in its settlement projects rather than break the deadlock.” He said that the Palestinians were no longer pinning any hopes on the US Administration to revive the peace process and added that the Palestinians have given Kerry a chance to stop Israel’s settlement policies by June 7.
“If the deadline expires and nothing new happens on the ground, there will be a new Palestinian strategy, including going to the United Nations and joining the International Criminal Court to file charges against Israel,” the PLO official said.