Jerusalem's mayor yesterday unveiled details of a controversial and long-expected plan to demolish Palestinian homes and make way for an Israeli-sponsored tourist park in a neighbourhood of the city's Arab eastern sector.
Mayor Nir Barkat agreed to a last-minute request from the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to delay implementation of the plan to allow further attempts to persuade Palestinian residents to accept it.
But despite warnings that the plan could "ignite" one of the most sensitive areas of the city, Mayor Barkat showed no sign at a news conference yesterday of backing away from the plan – which he insisted would benefit tourists and local residents, and which he said the Prime Minister supported.
The plan comes at a sensitive time, with the US attempting currently trying to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to talks with Mr Netanyahu. And the Israeli Prime Minister is already under fire from Palestinians, the Israeli left and the EU for including two religious venues in the West Bank on an Israeli list of "heritage" sites.
The Jerusalem mayor insisted the plan was a necessary "upgrade" of the Al-Bustan district of Silwan, designated by city officials as the "King's Garden" – connecting it to the site where the biblical King David is held to have written his psalms.
"The area's infrastructure will be upgraded. A neglected area will become a successful area. It will be a win-win situation for all," he said.
But Palestinian officials in Mr Abbas's Fatah faction were quick to denounce the move. Hatem Abdel Kader, the movement's spokesman on Jerusalem, told the Ynet news service: "Nir Barkat will bear the responsibility for the conflagration that will occur in the city if his plan is carried out. This is a much broader Israeli plan to drag us into a confrontation so that it will be able to evade its policy obligations."
Under the plan, outlines of which were disclosed in The Independent almost a year ago, the western section of the neighbourhood will be restored to what Mr Barkat says was its original condition of green space, as "a site of international as well as national prominence". That will mean the demolition of at least 22 Palestinian homes, with residents removed to the eastern side, where the municipality is promising a complex of "commercial areas, restaurants, artists' workshops, souvenir and local art shops".
Long-standing demolition orders have hung over another 66 homes, and Mr Barkat did not rule out the possibility that some of these might also have to be razed as part of the "upgrading" of the area.
The municipality says the threatened buildings were built without permits; Palestinians say it is well-nigh impossible to obtain a permit to build in inner city districts of east Jerusalem. Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem after the Six Day War, but that has never been accepted by the international community.
The Jerusalem-based Israeli NGO Ir Amim said it hoped the municipality would abide by its "obligations" to Palestinian residents and not promote "political agendas". It added that the demolitions would be a "dangerous step", which could "ignite one of the most volatile areas, and damage the stability and political future of Jerusalem".
Mr Barkat is meanwhile trying to get round court orders to demolish a seven-storey building elsewhere in Silwan occupied by Jewish settlers and which also did not have a permit. A security guard there was shot and injured on Monday. The mayor is arguing that by giving the building, known as Beit Jonatan, a retrospective permit, he would also be able to legitimise Palestinian houses in the area built to a similar height.