TEL AVIV // Officials in Jerusalem may approve as soon as next week a plan to build nearly 1,400 new homes for Jews in a disputed Jewish settlement in the holy city, a move likely to draw fury from the Palestinians and the United States.
Jerusalem's local building and planning commission is scheduled on January 24 to discuss the plan to construct the housing units near Gilo, a 40,000-strong hilltop residential settlement on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. Gilo was built in 1973 on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed to its Jerusalem municipality.
Meir Margalit, a city council member from the left-wing Meretz party, told Haaretz yesterday: "This is another nail in the coffin of the peace process." The Israeli daily first reported the building plan, which was confirmed later in the day by the municipality's press office.
Mr Margalit said: "This plan is more dangerous than its predecessors because of the massive size of the construction and because it will expand outside of Gilo and not remain within the settlement's borders."
According to Mr Margalit, the new addition to the settlement is likely to draw condemnation because it stretches not towards Israel but into the occupied West Bank, linking it to other settlements in the area that the Palestinians want as part of their future state.
Palestinians were quick to denounce the plan. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that Washington, Israel's staunchest ally, needed to pressure Israel to halt construction in East Jerusalem. "It is time for the United States' administration to hold Israel responsible for the failures of the peace process," he told CNN.
According to Mr Erekat, the Palestinian Authority plans to submit a draft of a resolution to the UN Security Council this week asking the UN's top body to condemn Israel's expanding settlement enterprise. However, any such resolution is likely to be rejected by the US, which the UN Palestinian ambassador last week said had still not been persuaded to support such a measure.
The disclosure of the possible new construction comes just a week after Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, condemned the start of another housing project for Jews in the mostly Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Last Sunday, bulldozers and workmen demolished part of the Shepherd hotel, a property bought by a Jewish-American businessman in 1985 but whose ownership is contested by Palestinians, to make way for the building of dozens of new apartments for Jewish settlers.
East Jerusalem is perhaps the most explosive dispute in the long-simmering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel insists the city's eastern section is part of its capital, a claim that is not recognised by the international community, while the Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Direct talks between the two sides are deadlocked, at least partly because Israel in September rejected the Palestinian demand to freeze building in East Jerusalem as part of a US-proposed temporary construction moratorium in the West Bank.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and head of a predominantly right-wing, pro-settler coalition government, insisted as recently as last week that Jews have the right to live anywhere in Jerusalem, including in Palestinian neighbourhoods.
The administration of Barack Obama, the US president, is working to reignite the peace process, and plans to discuss its efforts with the other members of the so-called Middle East Quartet - the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - on February 5 in the southern German city of Munich. The quartet last met in September, just before face-to-face talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed after Israel refused to renew a 10-month settlement freeze that expired at the end of that month.
According to Haaretz, the Gilo construction plan is likely to receive the green light from the municipal committee. It will include the initial building of 780 housing units and, at a later stage, another 600 apartments, as well as some public and commercial buildings, parks and roads, the newspaper reported. It added that more such construction schemes are expected to be advanced by the Jerusalem municipality in coming months.
The Jerusalem municipality said in a statement that the Gilo plan had been submitted for its approval by "private entrepreneurs" and that new apartments were needed because of demand from young couples and students. It also claimed that building was being advanced in the city not only for Jews but also for Palestinian residents. Israel's interior ministry would still need to give its nod to the plan should it be accepted by the municipal committee.