Jerusalem building proposals draw fire

Palestinians call project a ‘bribe’

City officials unveiled a plan to build hotels, businesses, and housing for Palestinians in central East Jerusalem (above). A Palestinian leader questioned the motives behind the proposal. City officials unveiled a plan to build hotels, businesses, and housing for Palestinians in central East Jerusalem (above). A Palestinian leader questioned the motives behind the proposal. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press)
By Mark Lavie
Associated Press / March 24, 2010

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JERUSALEM — City officials have submitted a grandiose plan for hotels, businesses, and new housing for Palestinians in the center of East Jerusalem, according to a statement issued yesterday, triggering renewed Palestinian objections.

The plan calls for developing a large area across from the Old City wall for tourism and commerce, as well as building 1,000 apartments.

Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they want to create, and they object in principle to any Israeli construction there. A Palestinian leader charged yesterday that the downtown reconstruction plan is meant to compensate for new building in Jewish neighborhoods.

Diplomatic crises have been set off by plans to build in existing Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including current tensions between Israel and the United States over plans for 1,600 new apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in another part of East Jerusalem away from the center.

Though the downtown program appeared to be aimed at improving the rundown eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, Palestinians have rejected it in the past because it appears to involve bulldozing large swaths of territory before building the planned hotels, commercial centers, and apartment buildings.

A graphic accompanying the statement showed a street with new housing built on top of present structures, indicating that the old buildings would not be destroyed.

But the area is crowded with houses and an existing commercial center along a main street that is in the center of the planned renovation area.

One border of the roughly triangular area is the exterior wall of the Old City. Another is known as Highway 1, which runs roughly down the dividing line between east and west Jerusalem. The third leg runs east to west across the northern edge of East Jerusalem, marking out an area of about 10 square miles.

The Jerusalem City Hall statement said the proposal has been given to the local Planning Commission for debate.

That is the first of many steps of approval before construction could begin. The process could take years and could stall at any stage.

Jerusalem officials were not available to answer questions about demolition of buildings or Palestinian cooperation in the plan.

The huge construction program has been around for several years, and Palestinians have consistently registered their objections.

Khatem Abdel-Qader, a Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, linked the downtown program with the intention to build in Jewish neighborhoods.

“This is an attempt by the municipality to bribe the Palestinian residents to accept building new houses in the area for Jews,’’ he told the Associated Press yesterday. “This is unacceptable.’’

Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly after the 1967 war, but that has not been recognized by any other country. Through the years, while proclaiming that undivided Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, successive Israeli governments have failed to bring East Jerusalem’s infrastructure up to the standards of the west, where Israelis live.

Jerusalem’s mayor is an Israeli. Although Palestinians who live in Jerusalem have the right to vote in municipal elections, few of them do, believing that voting would be tantamount to endorsing Israeli control. As a result, the Jerusalem municipality and council are run by Israelis.

Naomi Tsur, a deputy mayor in charge of development, told the Associated Press yesterday that City Hall is relating to Jerusalem as an urban area, not a political issue.

She noted that Mayor Nir Barkat does not favor handing control of any of the city to the Palestinians, contending that the future of the city must be as a single urban entity, not a divided political site.

“We’re not at this point an apple that can be cut in half; we’re intertwined and we’re interresponsible,’’ she said. “There’s no geopolitics for us in Jerusalem; there are people with needs in different communities, and that’s what we’re trying to address.’’

The Israeli military, meanwhile, said yesterday that it will investigate the deaths of two Palestinian teenagers during a weekend riot in the West Bank.

Two Palestinians were killed Saturday in the West Bank village of Burin, where clashes often erupt over a water well claimed by both Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

Palestinian medics said the deaths were caused by bullets fired by Israeli soldiers against protesters throwing fire bombs and rocks.

The Israeli military says the troops used only rubber bullets.