Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Monday to continue building Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, despite stiff international criticism and rising tensions between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the contested city.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu's government announced that it would advance plans to build about 1,000 Jewish-only housing units in east Jerusalem — an attempt, Palestinians said, to further cement Israel’s control over the city, creating “facts on the ground” that would keep Jerusalem under Israeli authority in a future peace deal.
Netanyahu defended the move in parliament, saying there was a wide consensus in Israel to continue building throughout the city, just as every Israeli government has done since Israel captured east Jerusalem from Palestinians in 1967.
"Even the Palestinians know that these places will stay in Israeli sovereignty under any agreement," he said. "The French build in Paris, the English build in London and the Israelis build in Jerusalem. To come and tell Jews not to live in Jerusalem — why?"
Israel’s construction of settlements in East Jerusalem — which Palestinians seek as their future capital — and other Palestinian territories is illegal under international law. Israel’s refusal to cease settlement-building activities has been widely condemned as an obstacle to achieving lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu's announcement on Monday follows local media reports that the prime minister is discussing further construction plans with government officials this week. Netanyahu is expected to chair a meeting Wednesday to consider projects including the creation of 12 new roads in the West Bank, the Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.
A government official briefed on the latest construction plans said the building would take place in Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo, two sprawling areas that are already well developed. He said the project would also include new infrastructure in the West Bank.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan is not yet official, he would not say when construction would begin. Netanyahu has been under heavy pressure from the United States and other Western allies not to expand settlement construction, and the latest pledge appeared to be aimed in part at appeasing hawkish coalition partners at a time when his government is under internal duress.
Earlier this month, the U.S. said that further construction in East Jerusalem would “poison the atmosphere” and distance Israel from even its closest allies.
Continued construction "call into question Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement," U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing on Oct. 1.
The Obama administration on Friday refused Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s request to meet several top national security aides — raising speculations that Israel’s relationship with its closest ally has become increasingly strained.
Israel’s latest construction plans are expected to exacerbate heightened tensions between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem — where Palestinian youths have been clashing regularly with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem for months.
“We believe such unilateral acts will lead to an explosion,” Jibril Rajoub, a leader of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, was quoted as saying by The New York Times.“Mr. Netanyahu should not expect a white flag from the Palestinian people."
Tensions have been high since June, when three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed by Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli extremists retaliated by abducting and killing a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem, sparking riots.
The abductions set off a chain of events that led to the 50-day Gaza war — which decimated the coastal enclave’s infrastructure and killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis. The war also turned international sentiment largely against Israel, which was accused of purposely bombing civilian areas and institutions, including U.N. schools.
Einas Khalil, a 5-year-old Palestinian kindergarten student, was killed on Oct. 19 in the West Bank by an Israeli settler who ran her over with his car. On Oct. 22, a Palestinian drove his car into a Jerusalem train station, killing a three-month-old Israeli-American baby girl, Chaya Zissel Brauna, and wounding several other people. On Sunday, a 22-year-old Ecuadorean woman, Karen Yemima Mosquera, also died of her wounds sustained in that attack. The Palestinian driver was shot and killed shortly after the incident.
On Friday, a Palestinian-American teenager was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, and 12 Palestinians were wounded during protests.
Among other demands, Palestinian protesters want Israel to cease settlement activity in East Jerusalem and honor residents’ rights.
Al Jazeera and wire services