Israel OKs 200 new homes in settlement

Associated Press

Jerusalem – — Israeli authorities gave preliminary approval Wednesday to build 200 homes in a Jewish area of east Jerusalem, a move that threatened to push Israelis and Palestinians deeper into conflict after weeks of unrest over the city's holiest sites.

The announcement came hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to arrive in neighboring Jordan on a mission aimed in part at restoring calm. A State Department spokeswoman said Washington was "deeply concerned" by the decision.

Much of the recent violence has stemmed from tensions surrounding Jerusalem's hilltop complex that is revered by Muslims and Jews. The collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks, Israel's war last summer in the Gaza Strip against the Islamic militant group Hamas, and continued Israeli settlement construction in east Jerusalem have added to the distrust.

Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman in the mayor's office, said city officials approved 200 homes in the Ramot area. Sprung said it was just a preliminary stage of the planning process — meaning construction would be years away.

She also said city officials approved an additional 174 homes for construction in an Arab neighborhood.

To Israelis, the announcement was relatively harmless. Ramot is a sprawling development already home to about 70,000 people, and most Israelis assume the area will remain part of Israel under any future peace agreement.

In the current tense climate, however, any Israeli construction for Jewish areas of east Jerusalem is potentially explosive.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed the area in a move that is not recognized internationally.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital. They consider all Israeli construction there to be illegal settlement activity — a position that is backed by the international community. About 200,000 Jewish Israelis live in developments like Ramot that ring east Jerusalem to help cement Israeli control.

The Israeli announcement came before Kerry's scheduled meeting in Jordan with King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the situation in Jerusalem. There was no immediate plan for Kerry to travel to Israel.

"We are deeply concerned by this decision, particularly given the tense situation in Jerusalem, as well as the unequivocal and unanimous position of the United States and others in the international community opposing such construction in east Jerusalem," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.

"These decisions to expand construction have the potential to exacerbate this difficult situation on the ground, and they will not contribute to efforts to reduce the tension," she added.

Under a longstanding arrangement, Jordan holds custodial rights over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, including the compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. It is the third-holiest site in Islam and the most sacred place in Judaism. Jews are permitted to visit, but prayer by non-Muslims is banned.

Increased visits by Jewish worshippers to the site, which also includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, have raised concerns among Muslims that Israel is secretly trying to take it over.