JERUSALEM , (AFP)— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear on Monday settlement building in east Jerusalem would continue, in a move likely to further heighten tensions with key ally the United States.
“Construction will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case over the past 42 years,” he told members of his Likud party. Israel occupied mainly Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community.
Israel’s go-ahead last week for the construction of 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem infuriated Washington, particularly since it coincided with a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden aimed at promoting renewed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington said bilateral relations have hit a 35-year low.
“Israel’s relations with the US are facing the most severe crisis since 1975,” the Yediot Aharonot newspaper quoted Ambassador Michael Oren, a prominent Middle East historian, as telling consuls in the United States during a telephone briefing over the weekend.
1975 saw US calls for a partial Israeli withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, then under Israeli occupation, igniting a major crisis between the two allies.
Last week’s announcement sparked fury among the Palestinians, who view east Jerusalem as their capital and see the growth of Israeli settlements as the main obstacle to the establishment of their promised state.
US administration officials including Biden, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior presidential adviser David Axelrod have slammed both the new construction and the timing of last week’s announcement as insulting and destructive to peace efforts.
On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Israel’s move “endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks.” “Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two state-solution impossible,” she said in Cairo where she addressed members of the Arab League.
Israel’s March 9 announcement of the green light for the new construction in east Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo came just two days after the Palestinians had reluctantly agreed to hold indirect negotiations with Israel.
Direct talks collapsed after Israel launched a devastating 22-day military offensive at in December 2008 against the Islamist Hamas-run Gaza Strip aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire.
Israeli troops wounded 10 Palestinians on Monday as they opened fire on dozens of students hurling stones at a West Bank checkpoint to protest against Israel’s actions in east Jerusalem, Palestinian medics and witnesses said.
As tensions mounted, Israel extended a lockdown of the West Bank and, for the fourth day running, barred men under the age of 50 and non-Muslims from entering the city’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
The compound is Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is also Judaism’s holiest site because it was the location of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Police and Palestinian demonstrators have clashed in and around the compound on the last two Fridays, and police fear Monday’s planned reopening of a 1694 synagogue a few hundred metres (yards) from the compound, could reignite protests.