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Israel accelerates controversial park project

Nov. 15, 2013 10:18 A.M. (Updated: Nov. 16, 2013 5:43 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- The Israeli government has accelerated a project for a national park between two Palestinian villages near annexed east Jerusalem to stop Palestinians building in the area, Israeli daily Haaretz reported Thursday.

The project, which authorities say is aimed at preserving the environment on the slopes of Mount Scopus, was announced at the end of October along with the construction of a further 1,500 homes in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.

Haaretz quoted an employee of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority as saying the project's real but unstated aim is to block Palestinian construction between the villages of Issawiya and al-Tur.

The newspaper did not provide any details on how the project was being speeded up, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Opposition lawmaker Zahava Gal-On told Israeli media that the project was a "dangerous concession to the extreme right."

Even within the government, Environment Minister Amir Peretz is opposed to the project in its current form and is locked in a struggle with its backers, who include the INPA, the municipality of Jerusalem and Netanyahu's office, Haaretz said.

"An agreement must be reached with the (Palestinian) residents around the parks to find a solution that will avoid harmful international criticism of Israel," Peretz told Channel 2 television on Thursday.

Netanyahu cancelled plans to build 20,000 new settler homes in the West Bank on Tuesday, hours after their announcement sparked US and Palestinian criticism.

Following mediation by Washington, direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians resumed in July after a three-year hiatus primarily due to Palestinian refusal to talk while settlement expansion continued.

Since then Israel has announced plans to build thousands of new settler homes in the occupied West Bank -- territory the Palestinians want for their future state under any peace deal.
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