The Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has accused Israel of "a total disregard for Palestinian rights" after its Interior Ministry announced the approval for the construction of more than 4,000 housing units in East Jerusalem.
The Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he had authorised the building of 625 homes in Pisgat Zeev, 1,600 in Ramat Shlomo, and 2,000 in Givat Hamatos. The Israeli government says the project had been given the green light to help solve a severe housing shortage.
The neighbourhoods were all built by Israel across the pre-1967 border in territory previously held by Jordan that was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War and annexed to Jerusalem. Legally, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are permitted to live in such suburbs, but very few actually do. Ramat Shlomo is designated as a strictly ultra-orthodox Jewish area.
Last week, Israel was internationally condemned when it announced it was building 930 units in Har Homa, an Israeli suburb built across the Green Line on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem close to Bethlehem. Critics included the EU and the US State Department, which said it was "deeply concerned".
In a statement, Mr Fayyad condemned the decision, describing the areas as "occupied territory that belongs to Palestinians". "The Government of Israel continues to expand settlement activity while it makes claims that it wants to return to the negotiation table," he said. "Their actions clearly demonstrate Israel's intentions to conduct their affairs outside the realm of international law and show total disregard for Palestinian rights. The Palestinian government calls upon the international community to take immediate action to force Israel to comply with international law and cease and desist from its illegal expansion and annexation of Palestinian land."
Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said he was "alarmed" by the Israeli announcement and noted that the Ramat Shlomo plan "was already condemned by the Quartet on 12 March 2010 during an initial planning stage". "This provocative action undermines ongoing efforts by the international community to bring the parties back to negotiations and shape a positive agenda," he said.
The 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo will be built almost immediately. The project caused a major rift in Israel-US relations when it was announced in the middle of the first official trip to the country by US Vice-President Joe Biden last year. "[The projects] are being approved because of the economic crisis here in Israel. They are looking for a place to build in Jerusalem, and these will help," said Interior Ministry spokesman, Roi Lachmanovich. "This is nothing political, it's just economic."
The Israeli government has been rattled in recent weeks by mass demonstrations demanding a solution to the country's severe housing shortage. Peace Now accused the Israeli government of "cynically using the current housing crisis in Israel to promote construction in the settlements".