JERUSALEM - Jerusalem planners have approved the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in the city's Muslim Quarter, officials said Tuesday, threatening to further inflame tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the city claimed by both as a capital.
The plan to build 21 apartments for Jews in the walled Old City's Muslim Quarter was approved 5-2 by a local planning board late Monday, said Yosef Alalu, a dovish city council member who is on the committee. The plan has to go through several more bureaucratic stages before final approval.
The plan was presented to the planning board by the Housing Ministry.
Palestinian officials accused Israel of creating facts on the ground ahead of a peace deal that would determine the fate of Jerusalem. "It will be like adding fuel to the fire, and we urge U.S. intervention to block this decision," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed it into its capital, a decision not recognized internationally. Palestinians want east Jerusalem, including the walled Old City, as the capital of a future state.
Israeli moves to settle Arab neighborhoods of the city have sparked violence in the past.
The current plan could be even more incendiary because it does not involve private property transactions, but is backed by the government. Alalu said the municipality would have to rezone a "green" area to build the apartments. "It is clear that when the first tractor puts down the first stone it will lead to the next uprising and could have international impact," Alalu said.
The Old City consists of four quarters â€” Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian. Today, just a few Jewish families live in the Muslim Quarter, in fortified complexes.
About a dozen properties are owned by Jews, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who bought an apartment there in 1987. For several years, Sharon used the apartment to hold political meetings, but today rarely visits the heavily guarded compound.
The plan approved Monday â€” which has been in the works for several years â€” would violate a city ban on building within 10 yards of the Old City wall, Alalu said.
The city engineer, Uri Shetrit, initially opposed the plan, which called for the construction of 30 housing units, Alalu said. Due to the engineer's concerns, the committee approved a smaller plan for 21 homes, but recommended the regional planning board â€” the next stop in the authorization process â€” approve the larger plan, Alalu said.
The municipality said Shetrit is not permitted to speak to reporters.
It will take years for the plan to move from paper to actual construction, Alalu said, because several more approval stages remain. In the past, the Housing Ministry and other government agencies have halted the project in the planning stages, he said.
Israeli human rights activist Danny Seidemann said Sharon's goal is to strengthen the hold on Jerusalem while the world's attention is focused on his upcoming Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Earlier this month, the Sharon government decided on the route of its separation barrier â€” intended as a defense against suicide bombers â€” that will cut off six Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem from the city. Palestinian officials have accused Israel of drawing the barrier to reduce the Palestinian population of the city.
The approval of the Jewish neighborhood in the Muslim Quarter "is yet another example that Mr. Sharon is using the withdrawal from Gaza ... to consolidate an Israeli stranglehold over east Jerusalem in a way that no government, including his own, has ever, ever dared to do in the past," said Seidemann, an attorney who heads Ir Amim, a Jerusalem settlement watchdog group.