East Jerusalem construction plan moves ahead

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JERUSALEM (AP) — City officials said Wednesday that they have granted final approval for the construction of a controversial new Israeli housing development in east Jerusalem, dealing a new blow to already tattered relations with the Palestinians and raising the likelihood of a fresh round of international condemnations.

The announcement was circulated by an anti-settlement watchdog group as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting President Barack Obama at the White House, though officials said the decision was taken two weeks ago. The U.S. has repeatedly criticized Israeli construction in east Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem municipality said in a statement that Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon had approved the construction of some 2,500 homes in Givat Hamatos, a development that would complete a band of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem and present another obstacle to the Palestinian goal of establishing a capital in the area.

A Jerusalem municipal official described the move as technical, saying the signature merely formalized a project that was approved three years ago. But he also acknowledged the step was the "final approval" needed before tenders can be issued to begin construction.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Kahlon had signed the order two weeks ago, and the timing had no connection to the current tensions with the Palestinians or Netanyahu's meeting with Obama.

The municipality statement appeared in a small local newspaper a week ago and was circulated by the anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now on Wednesday.

The official said it was not clear when tenders would be issued or when construction would begin.

Ariel Rosenberg, a spokesman for Israel's Housing Ministry, which is involved in planning settlement construction, accused Peace Now of timing its announcement to sabotage the White House meeting.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area as part of its capital, a move that is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital, and the international community, including the U.S., considers Israeli neighborhoods in the eastern sector to be settlements.

Some 200,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem. Because of Israel's construction of a half-ring of Jewish enclaves, only a few land corridors are left between core Arab neighborhoods and the West Bank. Givat Hamatos would cut one of the key remaining links — severing Beit Safafa from the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

The Jerusalem official noted that the new plan is also meant to provide housing for Arabs, with roughly one third of the apartments slated to expand Beit Safafa.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, condemned the move. "These actions send a clear message to the world in general, and to the Palestinian people in particular, that Israel is committed more to land theft than to peacemaking. Israel's unbridled settlement enterprise further constitutes a dangerous political insanity," she said.

The announcement came at a time of strained relations between Israel and the Palestinians. After the collapse of peace talks last spring and an Israeli war against Palestinian militants in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to ask the U.N. Security Council to set a November 2016 deadline for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian lands occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem. If the U.N. bid fails, Abbas has signaled he would pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

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