Israel plans large tourism complex, okays 130 settler homes in east Jerusalem


Israel on Wednesday approved plans for a large tourism complex in the heart of Arab east Jerusalem and another 130 homes for Jews elsewhere in the Holy City’s annexed eastern sector, an official said.

Both new construction plans were rubber-stamped at a meeting of Jerusalem city council’s district planning committee, angering the Palestinians.

The new tourism venture will be built in the flashpoint neighborhood of Silwan, which lies just south of Jerusalem's Old City.

“The municipality authorized construction of a tourist complex that includes 250 parking spaces, an archaeological park, an events hall and a library," city councilor Pepe Alalu of the left-wing Meretz party told AFP.

The project is to be built on a plot of land currently being used as a car park opposite the Dung Gate, the main entrance to the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

It would be managed by Elad, a hardline settler organization which seeks to increase Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem and which runs the nearby archaeological site at David’s City.

“Jerusalem municipality attaches great importance to the development of this tourism and archaeology site in David's City,” municipal spokesman Stephan Miller told AFP.

“The plans which were presented to the city council will allow for the establishment of visitors’ centers, exhibition centers, a conference hall and other facilities which will allow the most important archaeological finds discovered at the site to be put on display,” he said.

But local Palestinian activists lashed out at the move, saying the 8,400 square meter project (90,400 square feet), was another step in Israel's plans to take over their neighborhood.

“This project aims to promote settler tourism and religious tourism,” said Fakhri Abu Diab, head of the Silwan Defense Committee, who said the city had confiscated local land for the project.

“This complex will change the character of the area and will emphasize the idea that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people -- because it is a political project too,” he charged.

The complex would be a multi-story affair which would be higher than the Old City walls and would in some places block Silwan’s view of the walled al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Silwan is part of the so-called Holy Basin around the Old City and believed to be the site of ancient Jerusalem during the time of the biblical kings David and Solomon.

The densely populated neighborhood, which is built on the steep hillsides of the Kidron Valley, has seen regular clashes between locals and a 400-strong community of hardline Jewish settlers living in their midst.

Earlier on Wednesday, city councilors had approved plans for another 130 housing units in Gilo, a settlement neighborhood which lies close to Bethlehem, Meretz’s Alalu said.

“An agreement has been reached for construction of 130 apartments in three towers of 12 story each,” he told AFP, saying construction was likely to begin “in about three years.”

Wednesday’s approval did little to improve the mood between Israel and the Palestinians, who have not sat down for face-to-face talks for more than a year after direct negotiations collapsed following a dispute over settlements.

“I guess this is the New Year message that the government of Israel is sending us for 2012: ‘We will continue destroying the peace process and killing the two-state solution through continuing and escalating settlement activity,’” remarked Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

On Nov. 1, Israel’s inner cabinet decided to speed up construction of homes for Jews in Arab east Jerusalem and in other nearby settlements to punish the Palestinians for winning membership in the UN cultural agency, UNESCO.

Since then, Israel has issued announcements for 2,057 new homes in Arab east Jerusalem and 1,241 in the West Bank, official figures show.

At least 200,000 Israelis live in a dozen settlement neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state and oppose any attempts to extend Israel’s control over the part of the city that was captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem its “eternal and indivisible” capital.