Israeli right-wing politicians defiantly dedicated new Jewish homes in the heart of Arab-dominated East Jerusalem yesterday, less than a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed in a much-hyped speech that he would never divide Jerusalem.
Organisers of the event said the timing was coincidental, but it will raise eyebrows in Washington, coming as it does just days after US President Barack Obama riled Israeli officials by calling for a future Palestinian state to be based on the pre-1967 borders.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have foundered over the contentious issue of Jewish settlement expansion on occupied territory, and Israel has firmly defied international pressure to curb construction in East Jerusalem, which it occupied and later annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War.
An Israeli politician denounced the dedication ceremony as a “provocation” and suggested that the timing was deliberate, aimed at sending an uncompromising message to the Palestinians, who covet East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
“Why now? They couldn’t wait for one more week? This is not a casual move,” said Meir Margilit, a councillor in Jerusalem’s municipality who claimed that the date of the ceremony had been coordinated with the prime minister’s office. “Mr Netanyahu is sending a message to the right-wing and to the Palestinians: ‘Nothing will stop us from building in Jerusalem and the West Bank’.”
It was not clear if Mr Netanyahu was aware of the event or not. The PM’s office declined to comment.
Among those attending the ceremony was Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s hawkish mayor, and Eli Yishai, Israel’s interior minister, both enthusiastic proponents of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.
Inside the heavily-guarded compound, settlers revelled to folk music inside as protesters on the street outside chanted and held aloft banners, denouncing settlements as an “obstacle to peace.”
The ceremony marked the completion of the 60-home second phase of a Jewish housing project in Ras-al-Amud, a bustling Arab neighbourhood at the foot of the Mount of Olives, bringing the number of completed houses in the compound up to 110. The land for the settlement was purchased by Irving Moskowitz, a Florida-based Jewish financier, who has bankrolled many such projects in East Jerusalem.
The organisers of the ceremony said they were unconcerned about international opposition, declaring that they were following 'God’s roadmap'.
“The Jews have the right to live in the heart of Jerusalem,” said Daniel Luria, a director of Ateret Cohanim, a group dedicated to “redeeming” Jewish property in the Arab sector. “We are the indigenous people.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last September over the issue of settlements after Mr Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank.
He was expected to reveal in a much-anticipated speech on Tuesday new parameters for a peace deal, but instead blamed the Palestinians for the impasse and laid down conditions that the Palestinians will find hard to meet.
Although it met with swift condemnation from the Palestinians, who said it placed more obstacles in the path of peace, it was received well by all but the most nationalist elements of his right-wing coalition, as he ruled out any compromises on Israel’s security and reiterated his commitment to keeping Israel’s larger settlement blocs in the West Bank.
But he also made a concession to the Palestinians by saying that some settlements in the West Bank would end up outside Israel’s borders, prompting criticism from far-right politicians, who accused him of giving land away.