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Israeli right-wing outraged over construction plans in Jerusalem-area Palestinian town

July 4, 2016 11:06 P.M. (Updated: July 5, 2016 4:35 P.M.)
An Israeli border guard patrols in the occupied East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya on Aug. 19, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Right-wing Israeli politicians denounced on Monday a decision by the Israeli government to approve construction plans in the Palestinian town of Beit Safafa in occupied East Jerusalem, claiming that the move, despite a spike in illegal settlement construction plans, represented a focus on the Palestinian community to the detriment of Jewish Israelis.

Israel approved the construction of 600 housing units in Beit Safafa on Sunday, Israeli media reported, more than a month after a court rejected a freeze on the plan, which had initially been approved three years earlier but stalled based on a reportedly secret decision by senior Israeli officials.

The rare Israeli approval for construction in a Palestinian-majority area has come after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman approved the construction of 800 housing units in settlements in and near occupied East Jerusalem, and 42 new housing units in the settlement of Kiryat Arba in the southern occupied West Bank.

However, a number of far-right Israeli politicians expressed their severe discontent at the prospect of allowing construction in Beit Safafa, which they seemingly interpreted as coming at the expense of construction in Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem.

"Anyone who cares about a Jewish majority in the capital of Israel can't promote construction for the Arab population alone," Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Israeli Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin as saying.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the hardline Jewish Home party, said that allowing construction in Beit Safafa would “divide Jerusalem de facto, a Palestinian arrow in the heart of Jerusalem,” The Times of Israel reported.

“I call on the prime minister to not allow Palestinian construction alone,” Bennett added.

According to the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem (ARIJ), more than a third of Beit Safafa land has been confiscated by Israel since 1967 to the benefit of the nearby settlements of Gilo, Har Homat, and Givat Hamatos.

The settlements, along with the Israeli separation wall, have effectively cut off Beit Safafa from the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat criticized Netanyahu’s decision to approve further settlement construction -- not due to the fact that such policy is illegal under international law, but because of its occurrence in the wake of attacks which killed two Israelis, including a 13-year-old girl.

“It is a mistake to approve construction in Jerusalem only after a terror attack. We need to build in Jerusalem always,” The Times of Israel quoted Barkat as saying.

Addressing international condemnation of settlement construction, Barkat added: “I say to our friends in the US and Europe that there is no way that we will approve construction by religion and nationality. Can anyone even consider that we would approve construction for Arabs but freeze construction for Jews?”

According The Jerusalem Post, Barkat denied that there was any discrimination between Palestinian and Israeli residents of Jerusalem in terms of urban development.

“As far as construction in Jerusalem is concerned, we have a master plan that properly addresses the needs of both the Jewish community and Muslim population, just as any other city in the world does,” he said.

However, master plans for the city have been shown to push for the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, as one master plan reportedly allocated only 2,300 dunams (2.3 square kilometers) of East Jerusalem for Palestinian construction, compared to 9,500 dunams (9.5 square kilometers) for Israeli Jews, favoring densification of the Palestinian population in the area versus the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) further found in 2009 that only 13 percent of East Jerusalem was zoned by Israeli authorities for Palestinian construction, whereas 35 percent had been expropriated for Israeli settlements.

A June report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) revealed that only 25 percent of new apartments built in the city in the past five years were built in East Jerusalem, whereas a 2015 article by Haaretz revealed that only seven percent of building permits in Jerusalem were issued for Palestinian neighborhoods, which represent 40 percent of the city’s population.

Discriminatory policies against Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank has forced many Palestinians to build without permits, at the risk of seeing their homes demolished by Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, Israel advanced plans for 250 percent more settler homes in the first quarter of 2016 than it did in the same period last year, Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now said in April.

Most estimates peg the number of Israelis living in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory between 500,000 and 600,000.
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