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White House criticizes new Israeli settlement plan

Dec. 28, 2009 11:41 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 30, 2009 9:48 A.M.)
Bethlehem – Ma’an/Agencies – The White House is opposed to Israel's plan to build nearly 700 new settlement units in and around occupied East Jerusalem, its press secretary, Robert Gibbs, announced late Monday.

"The United States opposes new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. The status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved by the parties through negotiations and supported by the international community," he said in a statement.

"Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations. Rather, both parties should return to negotiations without preconditions as soon as possible," Gibbs added.

Israel announced its intention to build hundreds of new houses in settlements in East Jerusalem earlier Monday. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, government spokesman Mark Regev said the Israeli Housing Ministry invited contractors to bid on the construction of 198 housing units in the settlement Pisgat Ze’ev, 377 in Neve Ya'akov and 117 in Har Homa.

The Swedish presidency of the European Union also issued a statement saying it was “dismayed” at the announcement. “Settlements on occupied land are illegal under international law,” the statement said. “The Presidency of the European Union thus urges the Government of Israel to reconsider these plans.”

“The Presidency recalls that the European Union has never recognised the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.”

Israel occupied East Jerusalem along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967. It later annexed the city and regards it as an absorbed part of Israel. Palestinians and the international community never recognized Israeli sovereignty in the east of the city.

In 1967, Israel also expanded Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, such that much of what Israel terms ‘East Jerusalem’ actually lies deep in the West Bank. Har Homa, for example, is situated closer to Bethlehem than Jerusalem.

Making a mockery

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the announcement as a sign that Israel does not want peace. “With each individual action it undertakes on the ground, Israel is saying no to meaningful negotiations, no to a just and lasting peace and no to the two-state solution,” he said in a statement.

The PLO official added: “Every decision Israel takes to construct more illegal settlements makes a mockery of it’s so called ‘settlement moratorium’. If this is what Israel means by a settlement moratorium, then one can only wonder what Israel intends to do once that moratorium has expired.”

Erekat also said he asked the US Consul General in Jerusalem, Daniel Rubenstein, in a meeting on Monday morning to clarify its position on Israel’s obligation to freeze all settlement construction.

“The credibility of the peace process and the viability of the two-state solution together hinge on whether Israel is prepared to implement a comprehensive settlement freeze in line with international law and its obligations under the 2003 Road Map. Without this, negotiations cannot resume,” he said.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev defended the decision, saying Jerusalem’s status was different from that of the greater West Bank. "We make a distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our capital and remains such," Regev said on Monday, as quoted by Haaretz.

Another top Palestinian official, Fatah’s Hatem Abdul Qader said the Israeli announcement was “not surprising.” He said Israel’s declared moratorium on West Bank settlement construction was an “attempt to deceive the world.”

In an interview with Ma’an, Abdul Qader also said Israel has plans to extend its control over East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

House demolitions

In a related warning on Israel’s plans for Jerusalem, Abdul Qader said on Wednesday that Israel is planning to bulldoze 900 Palestinian houses in the city.

“The plan was given to a private firm to demolish the houses and building housing units and settlements in the Old City in Jerusalem," he told Voice of Palestine radio. "The plan is based on reducing the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem."

Haaretz also reported on Sunday that the Israeli state is considering expropriating privately-owned Palestinian land in order to build a sewage treatment facility that would serve the West Bank settlement of Ofra.

This came in a communiqué from the Israeli State Prosecutor's Office to the High Court of Justice on Sunday.

The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din is petitioning the court against the treatment plant.

"The fact that today the state is trying to legitimize the land theft ... by seizing land retroactively, for the sake of a settlement that was not long ago classified as 'the largest illegal outpost in the West Bank,' is nothing short of an outrage," said Shlomo Zacharia, one of the lawyers representing Yesh Din, as quoted by Haaretz.

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