JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel’s housing ministry said on Tuesday preparations were underway to build up to 1,100 new homes in and around Arab East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as capital of a future state.
The ministry said the municipality of Jerusalem was preparing tenders for 750 housing units in a northern area known as Pisgat Zeev, and possibly for an additional 370 units to the south in what is known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim.
U.S.-backed peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas bogged down late last year after Israel announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in Har Homa. “We are building in Jerusalem everywhere within its municipal boundaries,” Housing Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio.
An aide to Boim said tenders for the 370 additional units in Har Homa would only be issued pending the results of a previous tender for 307 units in the area.
Under U.S. pressure, Olmert has imposed a de facto halt to new construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, but he has not called off plans to build new homes within the boundaries of Jerusalem as defined by Israel.
The future of Jerusalem, which Israel regards as its “complete and united capital”, is one of the most divisive issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Abbas wants Arab East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognised internationally, as capital of the state he wants to establish in the occupied West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The talks are opposed by Hamas Islamists who seized control of Gaza in June after routing Abbas’s secular Fatah forces.
Palestinians see the building of Har Homa as the last rampart in a wall of settlements encircling Arab East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the occupied West Bank. They say it is a strategic move by Israel to pre-empt any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital.
Abbas wants a final peace treaty enabling him to declare a state by the end of the year. But Israel’s vice premier, Haim Ramon, said on Monday the aim of U.S.-backed peace talks between Olmert and Abbas was to reach agreement on statehood principles this year, rather than an accord spelling out all the details.
Speaking in Washington, Abbas’s Western-backed prime minister, Salam Fayyad, accused Israel of failing to keep its commitments to freeze Jewish settlement activity and to ease checkpoints that limit Palestinian mobility on the West Bank.