Sunday, March 21, 2010

Israel will not restrict building in occupied East Jerusalem

East Jerusalem is Occupied Territory:

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has declared his government will not restrict building in occupied East Jerusalem, despite US condemnation of the recent announcement of 1,600 new housing units.

Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that he would make Israel's position on Jerusalem clear during this week's visit to Washington.

"Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the last 42 years, and it has not changed," he said.

"As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv."

Netanyahu heads to the US capital on Sunday night to address the influential lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and meet with Barack Obama, the US president.

His visit comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and Washington over the settlement announcement, made as Joe Biden, the US vice-president, visited Israel.

The expansion plan was seen as an insult to the US and frayed Israel's usually strong ties with Washington.

Diplomatic activity

The Palestinians pulled out of planned so-called "proximity" talks after Israeli officials announced that the housing units would be built. They have demanded that all construction be stopped before they will return to negotiations.

In the aftermath there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity as major international powers have struggled to restart a peace process stalled for more than a year.

George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, met Netanyahu on Sunday, to present him with the official invitation to meet Obama on Tuesday and push for indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

He maintained pressure for renewed Israeli commitment to peace talks with the Palestinians, but also reassured Israel that the two countries enjoy an "unshakeable bond".

Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's Jerusalem correspondent, said: "What we're witnessing is really concerted efforts on the part of the international community to get some sort of peace process going again.

"It's been stagnant; it's been moribund for almost a year and a half now."

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, was also in the region on Sunday, criticising Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip during a visit to the Hamas-controlled territory.

Ban said that Israel's policy of closing off the territory is not sustainable and causes "unacceptable suffering".

Israel imposed a tightened blockade after the Hamas movement took full control of the coastal enclave in June 2007.

Ban told Gazans that "we stand with you" as he visited an area damaged by Israel's offensive 14 months ago.

Ban said families were living under "unacceptable, unsustainable conditions".

He saidd that it was "distressing" for him to see houses still damaged, with no reconstruction possible under the blockade.

The blockade has prevented the United Nations from completing housing projects, however, Ban pledged to continue providing aid to Gazans.

"My message to people of Gaza is this: the United Nations will stand with you through this ordeal," he said.

He also called for a prisoner exchange involving Palestinian prisoners and Israeli soldier Gilat Shilad who was captured in 2006.

'Illegal' settlements

The UN secretary-general's visit to Gaza followed a trip to the West Bank the previous day, where he reiterated demands that Israel end settlement building in Palestinian territory.

"Let us be clear, all settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and this must stop," Ban said, speaking at a joint news conference with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister.

Ban emphasised the commitment of the so-called international Quartet of Middle East negotiators - comprised of the UN, the European Union, Russia and the US - to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"The Quartet has sent a clear and strong message: we are strongly supporting your efforts to establish an independent and viable Palestinian state," Ban said.

He also met Israeli officials, including Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, as part of his trip.

But the moves on the diplomatic stage were overshadowed by violence on the ground in the West Bank.

Four Palestinians were killed in the past two days in the West Bank.


Map of planned East Jerusalem Housing By Israel March 11 2010

Israel's approval for building 1,600 new housing units for ultra-Orthodox Jews in East Jerusalem has infuriated the Palestinians.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, a Palestinian Authority spokesman, told the AFP news agency: "This is a dangerous decision and will hinder the negotiations."

The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now condemned the new project, saying it would "widen the gap with the Palestinians and the two-state solution, which risks becoming obsolete".

According to Israel's Haaretz newspaper, some 50,000 housing units are reported to be in various stages of planning and approval on occupied land in East Jerusalem.

Haaretz says plans for around 20,000 apartments are already in an advanced stage.

A spokesman for the Israeli interior ministry said: "The Jerusalem District Planning Committee today approved a plan which has been in the works for over three years.

"This is a procedural stage in the framework of a long process that will yet continue for some time. The committee meeting was determined in advance and there is no connection to US Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to Israel."

There are still various planning hurdles for the East Jerusalem project to clear, and work is not thought likely to start for at least another two years.

Under pressure from the US, Israel has agreed a 10-month suspension of new building in the West Bank. However, the moratorium excludes East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

Israel's continued expansion of settlements is one of the biggest obstacles to the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, now suspended for more than a year despite months of US-led shuttle diplomacy.


Israeli security forces have forcibily evicted two Palestinian families from a contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood.

The families have lived in Sheikh Jarrah since 1956 but an Israeli court ruled that the homes belonged to Jewish families. Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports from occupied East Jerusalem.

Obama blocks delivery of bunker-busters to Israel