Written by Matthew Kalman
THE MEDIA LINE : Sunday, July 19, 2009
JERUSALEM - Israeli leaders demanded on Sunday that the United States stop interfering with construction plans in East Jerusalem.
Jerusalem City Councillor Yakir Segev said the State Department was making “a grave mistake” in protesting a new residential project in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
“I think it will be right for the U.S. and the international community not to interfere with the micro-management of municipal affairs in Jerusalem,” Segev told The Media Line.
“It is not a matter for the international community. It’s a free country and a free market,” said Segev.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a chorus of angry comment after Israel’s ambassador in Washington was summoned to the U.S. State Department over plans to build 20 private homes on the site of the Shepherd’s Hotel.
But Palestinian officials welcomed the American intervention and condemned the new houses as “settlements” that undermined peace talks.
The former Shepherd’s Hotel is in an area of luxurious Arab villas which was captured by Israel along with East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. It was bought in the 1980s by American businessman Irving Moskowitz, who is a key figure behind efforts to purchase buildings in East Jerusalem to house Israelis. The area is now part of the Jerusalem Municipality, whose planning committee approved the construction of the housing project.
Ambassador Michael Oren was summoned to the State Department last Friday where US officials said the project should be halted in line with the U.S. demand for a freeze on all settlement building in the West Bank.
But Netanyahu said that Jerusalem was in a separate category.
“United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told ministers at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “Our sovereignty over it is cannot be challenged. Residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city.”
“In recent years hundreds of apartments in Jewish neighborhoods and in the western part of the city have been purchased by – or rented to – Arab residents and we did not interfere,” he said.
“We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem,” the Prime Minister continued. “I can only describe to myself what would happen if someone would propose that Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods in New York, London, Paris or Rome. There would certainly be a major international outcry.”
The local planning committee of the Jerusalem Municipality said it “operates according to equal criteria for all issues of construction permits, without regard to race, creed, gender, religion, or national identity of the resident or property owner. The acquisition of the land that includes the Shepherd’s Hotel was legal and received the necessary renovation and construction.”
Yakir Segev, the Jerusalem City Council member responsible for East Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the US State Department had no place in determining “a local planning issue.”
“I think it’s a grave mistake,” Segev told The Media Line. “The issue with the lands and houses is totally different from the West Bank.”
“You can argue whether Israeli settlements in the West Bank are right or not, but in Jerusalem it’s all private land, and if a certain Arab citizen wants to sell his house to a Jewish one, it’s not a matter for the municipality to interfere,” he continued. “It is of course not a matter for the international community. It’s a free country and a free market. The same with an Arab citizen who wants to buy a house in a Jewish neighborhood – no one is going to prohibit him from doing that.”
The building was originally constructed in the 1930s for Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem who was eventually deported by the British during the Second World War. The British Mandate authorities confiscated the building after his deportation and used it as a British military base. After the 1949 War of Independence it was transferred to the Jordanians who added to the building and it became the Shepherd’s Hotel.
After the 1967 Six Day War, the Israeli government took over the building and used it for the Ministry of Justice and as a district courthouse. In November 1985 it was purchased in a public tender by C and M Properties – believed to be one of Moskowitz’s companies – and then rented back to the Israeli government who used it as a base for their Border Police units for some 15 years. It has been abandoned ever since, pending planning approvals.
The site is known to the Palestinians as Karm Al-Mufti, because of its association with Husseini.
Palestinian leaders have accused Israel and private entrepeneurs like Moskowitz of “Judaizing” East Jerusalem. Segev said that “only a few hundred” Jews live inside Arab neighborhoods that were annexed by Jordan after the end of the British Mandate.
Jordan expelled all surviving Jewish residents from the Old City, East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the 1949 armistice. But more than 200,000 Israelis - Jews and Arabs - now live in large new neighborhoods built across the old border inside the expanded Jerusalem municipal boundary.
Ahmad A-Ruweidi, head of the Jerusalem unit at the Palestinian president’s office, hailed the US intervention as “a positive step.”
“There’s now pressure but this came late,” A-Ruweidi told The Media Line. “This should have happened a long time ago. The settlements should have stopped in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is an occupied city and Israel’s actions on the ground won’t change the fact that it’s an occupied city.”
“The people in the streets of Jerusalem would never accept Abu Mazen conducting negotiations with Israel if there were settlements and house demolitions in Jerusalem,” he said.
A-Ruweidi rejected the idea that it was a purely local municipal issue and said the Palestinian Authority would continue to bring international pressure to bear on the Israelis regarding construction in Jerusalem.
“The Palestinian presidency is in constant contact with all the international parties relevant to the political process in the Middle East and especially with the US administration, the Quartet, European countries, non-aligned countries and with Arab and Muslim countries,” he said. “The world now has a united position against settlements and house demolitions in Jerusalem. The settlements constitute a humanitarian crime.”