Israel is pushing forward with controversial plans to build 1,800 new settlement housing units in occupied East Jerusalem in the largest proposed surge in construction in recent years.
The plans are expected to be considered by the Jerusalem district planning committee this month. If approved, they would mark an end to the relative slowdown in Israeli construction in the eastern parts of the city.
Israel’s rightwing government appears to have been emboldened by the pro-Israel stance of the Trump administration, which has been far more muted in its criticism of settlements than its predecessor.
When the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Donald Trump in Washington earlier this year, the US president issued a weakly-worded request that Netanyahu limit settlement activity.
The disclosure of the East Jerusalem plans by the Peace Now group came as Netanyahu approved proposals to allow Israeli MPs to once again visit the flashpoint Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif complex on a five-day trial, starting this month.
Visits by MPs to the site – considered the holiest in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam – were banned in 2015 after a wave of Palestinian violence following claims that Israel was attempting to take control of the compound.
The two issues seem likely to raise tensions once again in Jerusalem, over which Israel has claimed sovereignty since it seized the Old City and eastern neighbourhoods in 1967. Israel’s claim is not recognised by much of the international community. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
The construction plans include proposals for Jewish buildings, such as an eight-storey yeshiva, in Sheikh Jarrah, which Palestinians regard as being at the very heart of East Jerusalem.
According to Peace Now, the plans would also involve demolishing the homes of five Palestinian families, who have had long-term tenancy rights.
Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law as they are built on occupied territory.
Last month, Israel began work on the first new settlement in the West Bank in 25 years to house rightwing extremist settlers expelled from the illegal out-post of Amona in February.
According to official Israeli statistics the period between April 2016 and March 2017 saw a 70.4% increase in settlement housing construction in the occupied West Bank.
The plans for new settlement housing in Sheikh Jarrah are likely to be the most contentious following an outcry seven years ago – which prompted mass protests by activists –when Palestinians were evicted in similar moves.
The neighbourhood is regarded as heavy with symbolism for both sides. For Israel, it was home to a small Jewish community until 1948 when East Jerusalem came under Jordanian rule after the war that saw Israel’s birth.
Then in the 1950s several dozen Palestinian refugee families from west Jerusalem – displaced by the same war – were settled there.
In recent years, however, a number of these Palestinian families have been evicted as a result of Israeli court rulings to recognise pre-1948 Jewish ownership claims under laws that refuse to recognise claims made by Palestinians forced to leave west Jerusalem in similar circumstances.
Peace Now and other groups condemned the plans, accusing the Israeli government of trying to destroy the two-state solution.
“The government is brutally attempting to destroy the possibility of the two-state solution, and this time it is by establishing a new settlement at the heart of a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and promoting nearly 1,800 housing units beyond the Green Line,” they said in a statement.
“The eviction of five Palestinian families, which are protected tenants, in order to establish a new settlement in Sheikh Jarrah shows that nothing will get in the way of settler groups and a pro-settler government from preventing a future compromise in Jerusalem.”
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