Razing of Palestinian homes 'ill-timed'

Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, has attacked the timing of plans to raze Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem as prejudicial to hopes for continuing peace talks, echoing a row over housing that caused an unprecedented crisis between Israel and the United States earlier this year.

Barak, visiting Washington, highlighted the ever-sensitive issue of Jerusalem by suggesting that the go-ahead for the controversial “King’s Garden” archaeological park should have been delayed. The US warned on Monday that the city council’s decision to develop the project in the Silwan area threatened recently resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the US as mediator.

“The King’s Garden project, which has waited for 3000 years, can wait another three to nine months,” Barak reportedly told associates.

The controversy erupted after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had enjoyed a brief respite from tensions after Washington praised Israel’s decision this week to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip following the row over its bloody interception of the “freedom flotilla”.

The Obama administration had been concerned about approval for the Silwan project and had had “numerous conversations” with Israel about it, Phillip Crowley, the US state department spokesperson, said. “This is the kind of step that we think undermines trust [that is] fundamental to making progress.”

Plans to build new housing units for Jews in another part of East Jerusalem ignited the row between the US and Israel in March. Netanyahu’s government was criticised at home and abroad when a planning body made the announcement during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president, making it look like deliberate defiance.

But now, as then, domestic ­controversy is more about the timing of the announcement than the substance, as most Israelis are not prepared to see a building freeze in East Jerusalem.

The Arab side of the city was annexed after the 1967 war but Palestinians insist it is their future capital and must be part of any peace deal.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said: “Israel continues its settlements policy in East Jerusalem and threatens to harm US efforts to promote proximity talks.”

In March Netanyahu asked Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, to freeze the project, which involves razing 22 Palestinian homes and constructing a tourism centre. A further 66 homes, built without proper permits, would receive retrospective approval. Residents of the demolished homes would be helped to move to other areas of Silwan.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has defended the measures easing the Israeli blockade as undermining the propaganda of Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza. He did so after coming under fire from Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel’s centrist opposition. Livni said that Israel had to take tough decisions, not at the behest of the Arabs or [US President Barack] Obama, but in its own interests.

A statement issued after a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet this week said steps to ease the blockade will be implemented “as quickly as possible”. A statement issued by Tony Blair, the Middle East peace envoy authorised to broker a deal with Netanyahu, issued a separate statement covering the same ground but warning that the real test would be “not what is said, but what is done”.

The aim of the new policy is to ­permit “civilian products for the civilian population”, Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesperson, said.

It will include:

  • A list of prohibited items limited to weapons and material that could be used in manufacturing arms. All other civilian items will be allowed in.

  • Building materials for the Palestinian Authority and UN-approved projects to be allowed to enter Gaza.

  • Capacity at crossing points to be increased to allow easier access.

  • The policy on the movement of people in and out of Gaza will be “streamlined”.

No timetable was issued for the publication of the list of banned items and the statements did not address the crucial issue of whether commercial goods will be allowed to cross into Gaza to allow the recovery of its crippled economy.

Decisions were still pending, an Israeli official said.

Aid agencies have cautioned that concrete implementation of any relaxation of the siege could be hampered by Israeli foot-dragging.

“The siege must be ended, not just eased,” said the UN’s Chris Gunness. “Otherwise Israel continues to be in breach of international law.”

Calling for the blockade to be lifted completely, Ziad al-Zaza, a Hamas cabinet minister, called the Israeli move a “deception”.

Aid agencies say the blockade has left 80% of Gazans dependent on handouts and forced the closure of thousands of businesses.—

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