Netanyahu: Israel will build in Jerusalem despite criticism


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday his government would press ahead with expanding Jewish settlements around Jerusalem despite Western criticism of its plan to build 6,000 more homes in territory Palestinians seek for a state.

In addition to several thousand housing units approved earlier this month, Israeli media said initial approval was granted on Wednesday for construction of another 3,400 units in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in a 1967 war and annexed it as part of its capital. Palestinians want the area to be capital of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, land also captured by Israel.

“We are going to build in Jerusalem for all its residents, this is something that has been done by all previous governments and this is something that my government will continue to do,” Netanyahu said in a meeting with foreign ambassadors.

“Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years,” Netanyahu said, “Imagine that you would limit construction in your own capital, it doesn't make sense.”

Netanyahu launched his latest settlement expansion push after Palestinians won de facto recognition as a state in a United Nations vote last month.

Israeli analysts see the settlement drive also as an effort by Netanyahu to enhance support for his right-wing Likud party against other hawkish rivals in a January 22 parliamentary election he is expected to win.

Most world powers deem Israeli settlements illegal and say they are an obstacle to peace. The Palestinians say Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will deny them a viable state.

The United States and Europe have strongly condemned Israel's latest building plans, and Israeli ambassadors were summoned earlier this month for a reprimand in at least half a dozen European capitals.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this week that Washington was “deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action.”

Nuland said settlement expansion put the goal of achieving a two-state solution already delayed by peace talks being stalled for two years, “further at risk.”

Nimr Hammad, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas told Palestinian radio the Palestinians may protest “to the (U.N.) Security Council and seek a resolution there” against Israel's latest settlement plans.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Jon Hemming

Jerusalem committee approves new Gilo housing


A Jerusalem building committee has approved the construction of 130 new apartments in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

The construction must still be approved by the government’s Interior Ministry. It will be about three years before ground will be broken on the project, if approved at all levels.

The project received its first round of approvals in November 2010.

Building approvals in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem were sped up by the Israeli government in response to the Palestinians being accepted for membership in UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, in November of this year.

U.N. Security Council states condemn Israel over housing


Members of the U.N. Security Council criticized Israel’s decision to construct additional housing in the settlements and the United States for blocking a vote to condemn the action.

The four European Union nations on the council—Britain, France, Germany and Portugal—issued a joint statement slamming Israel for settlement building. They cited a briefing by the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who said such construction is preventing the restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“One of the themes that emerged was the severely damaging effect that increased settlement construction and settler violence is having on the ground and on the prospects of a return to negotiations,” the EU council members said in their joint statement, Reuters reported.

The president of the Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, indirectly blamed the United States for its role in the stalled negotiations.

“There is one delegation which would not want to hear anything about it, any kind of a statement, which believes that somehow things will sort of settle themselves somehow miraculously out of their own,” Churkin said.

Statements from the Nonaligned Movement, the Arab group and the group of emerging powers that includes India, Brazil and South Africa also condemned Israel and the United States, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement expressing her “strong disapproval” of Israel’s announcement earlier this week issuing a tender to build more than 1,000 housing units in the West Bank, including in eastern Jerusalem.

“I urge them not to proceed with this publication,” Ashton said in the statement. “The EU’s position is clear: Settlement construction is illegal under international law and further complicates efforts to find a solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By ensuring the suspension of the publication of these tenders, the Israeli government can contribute positively to these efforts.”

Israel closes Jerusalem holy compound footbridge


Israel on Monday closed a footbridge it deemed unsafe at Jerusalem’s holiest and most volatile religious site after fears that demolition of the structure, used mainly by non-Muslim tourists, could spark Arab anger.

The wooden ramp was erected by Israeli authorities as a stopgap after a snowstorm and earthquake in 2004 damaged a stone bridge leading up from Judaism’s Western Wall to the sacred compound where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand.

Any construction at the site can be politically explosive. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, his opening in 1996 of a new entrance to an access tunnel for tourists near the compound touched off Muslim protests and gun battles in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed.

The footbridge was to have been torn down last month but Netanyahu postponed the demolition on the advice of Israeli diplomats and security officials, government officials said.

Netanyahu was cautioned that removing the structure and building a new bridge could enrage Muslims – especially in turbulent Egypt – who might believe the work could damage al-Aqsa, said the officials, who insisted no harm would come to existing buildings.

A police spokesman said the bridge was closed after Jerusalem’s city engineer declared it unsafe. It had been used mainly by tourists. Muslim worshippers use other entrances to the holy compound. Jews pray outside at the Western Wall.

Israeli media reports said Israel would consult with the king of Jordan, the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, on the future of the bridge.

The city’s senior Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said Islamic religious authorities opposed demolition of the existing structure and construction of a new one.

The holy compound is in the old walled city of Jerusalem.  Jews revere the compound as the site of their Biblical Temple, destroyed by Roman troops in the 1st century. Surviving foundations of its Western Wall are now a focus of prayer.

For Muslims, who captured Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock marks the spot from which Mohammad made his night journey to heaven.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller

Israel Supreme Court OKs Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem project


JERUSALEM — The Israeli Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Simon Wiesenthal Center can build its long-planned Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance on a contested site in the middle of Jerusalem.

The decision came eight years after the initial announcement that famed architect Frank O. Gehry would design the landmark museum, and four years after a ground-breaking ceremony attended by Israeli and California dignitaries.

In the meantime, the estimated cost of the project has escalated from $120 million to $250 million. The Center already has raised $115 million for the project, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center.

He said construction would resume immediately and praised the court’s ruling, adding, “All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision.”

Hier estimated that the museum would open in about three-and-a-half years.

Following Gehry’s design, the new complex will consist of a general museum and a children’s museum, a theater, conference center, library, gallery and lecture halls, with the mission to promote civility and respect among different segments of the Jewish community and between people of all faiths.

The museum site, adjoining Independence Park, served as Jerusalem’s main Muslim cemetery until 1948. Muslim authorities appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court that museum construction would desecrate the cemetery, which allegedly contained the bones of Muslims killed during the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Attorneys for the Wiesenthal Center countered that the site housed a four-story underground garage for three decades, and before that the old Palace Hotel, and that Muslim religious authorities had ruled earlier that the location had lost its sacred character.

In an 85-page decision, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court agreed with the Wiesenthal Center argument.

Other objections had been raised by some Israeli politicians and initially by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Memorial Holocaust Authority. Hier assured Yad Vashem that the new museum would not deal with the history of the Holocaust.

Throughout the lengthy proceedings, the project had the unstinting support of Ehud Olmert as mayor of Jerusalem and later prime minister of Israel.

The Supreme Court decision drew immediate objections from Gershon Baskin, a longtime Israeli opponent of the project because of its Muslim cemetery connection.

Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, called for letters of protest from all “Jerusalemnites, rabbis, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and citizens of the world.”

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Artist’s rendering of the project

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