Jerusalem committee approves controversial building project
A Jerusalem local planning committee approved Monday a controversial project to demolish a number of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, and give retroactive building permits to others, in order to build an archaeological park, dpa reported.
The plan, brainchild of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, will see 22 of the 88 homes built without permits in Silwan, in East Jerusalem, demolished, and their residents rehoused in new buildings. The remaining homes would be retroactively legalised.
In Washington, the United States made clear its concern about how the move will affect negotiations over the permanent status issues of Jerusalem, noting that the decision had been taken by a city government and not national leaders.
"This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks and ultimately in direct negotiations," said US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley.
The area earmarked for the plan, known in Arabic as al-Bustan (the Garden) and in Hebrew as Gan Hamelekh (King's Garden), is believed by some to be the spot where King Solomon wrote the "Song of Solomon" 3,000 years ago.
Barkat hopes to turn the area into a tourist attraction by building a commercial zone, art galleries and restaurants.
The plan had been due to get underway earlier this year, but in a rare intervention in municipal affairs, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Barkat in March "to allocate more time to attempts to reach an understanding with Silwan residents."
The residents of the neighbourhood, located adjacent to, and south of, Jerusalem's Old City, had reacted angrily to the plan, with their spokesman saying the scheme was a pretext to drive Palestinians away, and warning of violence if it went ahead.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War, and incorporated it into the municipal boundaries of West Jerusalem.
In 1980 the Israeli government formally declared East Jerusalem to be a part of its "eternal and undivided" capital, a decision rejected by Palestinians, who see it instead as the capital of their future state.