Israel to advance East Jerusalem building

Despite international anger over settlement construction, Israel pushes ahead to build 3,000 homes

Published December 4, 2012 3:13PM (EST)

ERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel is moving forward with plans for two major settlement projects in east Jerusalem, a spokeswoman said Tuesday, even as a senior Palestinian official warned that his government could pursue war crimes charges if Israel doesn't halt such construction.

International anger over Israeli settlement construction has snowballed in recent days, following last week's U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine - in lands Israel occupied in 1967 - as a non-member observer in the General Assembly.

Israel retaliated for U.N. recognition of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem by announcing plans to build 3,000 homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as well as preparations for construction of an especially sensitive project near Jerusalem, known as E-1.

The Israeli reprisal has prompted the country's strongest Western allies to take an unusually strong line with the Jewish state.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Tuesday that the latest Israeli building plans would make the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, "almost inconceivable."

Australia and Brazil summoned the local Israeli ambassadors Tuesday in protest, Israel's Foreign Ministry said, a day after five European countries, including Britain, took the same step.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev defended the recent Israeli decisions, saying that "from our perspective, Israel is responding in a very measured way to a series of Palestinian provocations."

U.N. recognition could enable the Palestinians to gain access to the International Criminal Court and seek war crimes charges against Israel for its construction of settlements on occupied lands.

Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he's not going to turn to the ICC "unless we were attacked" and that he informed many countries, including the United States, of this position. Abbas spoke before Israel announced its latest settlement plans.

A senior Abbas aide, Nabil Shaath, said late Monday that "by continuing these war crimes of settlement activities on our lands and stealing our money, Israel is pushing and forcing us to go to the ICC."

Israel also said it is withholding some $100 million in tax rebates and other fees it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. The monthly transfer of the funds is vital for keeping afloat Abbas' Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government in the West Bank.

Shaath's comments marked the most pronounced Palestinian threat yet of turning to the ICC, though officials suggested that appealing to the international court is a step of last resort.

After the General Assembly vote on Palestine, Israel's government decided to authorize construction of 3,000 additional homes in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Regev, the Israeli spokesman, said Tuesday that this meant final permission was being granted for projects that had been in various stages of planning. He said this includes new homes in settlements in east Jerusalem, such as Gilo and Pisgat Zeev, as well as in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem.

Israel's government also said it would move forward with the so-called E-1 project, which would include at least 3,500 homes east of Jerusalem. E-1, which would be built next to another large West Bank settlement, Maaleh Adumim, would effectively cut off east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' intended capital, from the West Bank.

Successive U.S. governments have pressured Israel to freeze the plan because it would threaten chances of setting up a viable Palestinian state.

Regev said Tuesday that the government authorized preliminary planning and zoning work in E-1, but that the government has not decided yet whether to authorize construction.

Separately, Israel is moving two major east Jerusalem building projects forward in the planning pipeline.

In the next two weeks, an Interior Ministry planning committee is holding deliberations on these projects, known as Ramat Shlomo and Givat Hamatos, said ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach.

Ramat Shlomo is a 1,600-apartment development, while Givat Hamatos would eventually consist of some 2,600 apartments.

The Ramat Shlomo project touched off a diplomatic crisis with the U.S. in 2010 when the ministry gave it preliminary approval during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, who was broadsided by the news.

Givat Hamatos, on the southern edge of Jerusalem, would cut off east Jerusalem from the nearest Palestinian town, biblical Bethlehem, and change the future borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Orbach said the meetings on the projects were scheduled before the U.N. vote and that it could take months, if not years, for actual construction to begin.

Israeli settlement construction lies at the heart of a four-year breakdown in peace talks, and was a major factor behind the Palestinians' U.N. statehood bid. Since 1967, half a million Israelis have settled in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, but continues to restrict access to the territory. It says the fate of settlements should be decided in negotiations and notes that previous rounds of talks continued while construction went on.

Abbas was to meet later Tuesday with senior officials in the Palestine Liberation Organization and his Fatah movement to discuss how to leverage the Palestinians' upgraded status on the world stage.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official, said the Palestinians were encouraged by the recent diplomatic sanctions against Israel, but that the international community must go further.

Among other steps, she said the European Union should reconsider its association agreement with Israel that grants the Jewish state considerable trade benefits. She said the EU should also take harsher measures against products from Israeli settlements.

"We have to move to concrete steps so Israel knows it has something to lose and will be held accountable, in accordance with international law," Ashrawi said.


Laub reported from Ramallah.


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