A plan for settling thousands more Jews in a strategic part of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem has quietly cleared a key bureaucratic hurdle, threatening to cut a link between Jerusalem and the West Bank and endanger already slim peace prospects.
The proposed Givat Hamatos development would complete a Jewish band around a part of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital, complicating any future partition of the city.
"This is a game changer," Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert, said of Givat Hamatos. While relatively small in size, "this is a mega-settlement in terms of impact," he added.
The plan calls for about 2,600 apartments, including about 1,800 for Givat Hamatos and 800 for an expansion of Beit Safafa, an adjacent Palestinian neighborhood, Seidemann said. Construction could begin by the second half of 2012, he said.
Because of Israel's construction of a half-ring of Jewish enclaves in east Jerusalem, only a few land corridors are left its core Arab neighborhoods and the West Bank. Givat Hamatos would cut off one of the key remaining ones _ cutting off the area of Beit Safafa from the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
The new building plan drew condemnation over the weekend from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The U.N. and EU, along with the U.S. and Russia, make up the Quartet of Mideast mediators, who hope to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Quartet envoys are set to meet next week in the region to nudge the two sides back to the table, but prospects are were dim before, and even more so now.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not return to talks as long as Israel keeps building on territory it captured in the 1967 war, and Palestinian officials said the plans for Givat Hamatos reinforced that decision.
"It's another slap in the face of all those international efforts being made toward the resumption of a meaningful political process," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told The Associated Press on Monday. "It's not only damaging to our own interests, it's damaging to all those who have a vested interest in a two-state solution," referring to a Palestinian state next to Israel.
In any future peace deal, guidelines first established by former U.S. President Bill Clinton a decade ago would likely still apply to a partition of Jerusalem _ Arab neighborhoods to Palestine and Jewish neighborhoods to Israel. Such arrangements would be complex, likely requiring the construction of bridges and tunnels to create contiguity between disjointed Arab and Jewish areas.
Both Israel and the Palestinians accepted the concept at the time, but peace talks broke down over other issues.
The Palestinians, along with the international community, make no distinction between construction for Jews in the West Bank and in the occupied sector of Jerusalem. Israel annexed east Jerusalem _ plus a swath of West Bank land around it _ after the 1967 war and since then has settled 200,000 Jews in a ring of new developments around the Arab core.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while offering to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state, opposes a partition of Jerusalem. His ruling coalition is dominated by hard-liners and supporters of settlement.
In a reflection of their power, the Netanyahu government last week decided to set up a task force to review West Bank land ownership, possibly creating a way to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts on lands until now regarded as private Palestinian property.
And last Tuesday, Jerusalem city officials also deposited the Givat Hamatos plan for a 60-day public review period. Court appeals could delay the process for a few more months, but construction could start within a year, according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, calling last week's decision the final planning stage.
Jerusalem municipal spokesman Stephan Miller said more steps have to be taken before construction can begin, but declined to give details. The plan could also be canceled at the government level.
Israelis insist the post-1967 housing developments are mere "Jewish neighborhoods," a term sounding benign and residential. The Palestinians, along with officials from the United Nations, the European Union and others, refer to them as settlements, a word which, in the shorthand of the conflict, implies illegitimacy.
Semantics aside, the world community overwhelmingly opposes the east Jerusalem construction _ and it is a red line for the Palestinians who consider the eastern part of the city as their capital.
About half a million Israelis already live on occupied land, including the 200,000 in areas Israel annexed to Jewish west Jerusalem. The annexed lands include the original east Jerusalem, which under Jordanian rule was a hilly hamlet of some six square kilometers (2.5 square miles), as well another 64 square kilometers of the West Bank.
Givat Hamatos would be the first new Jewish settlement _ or neighborhood _ to be built in east Jerusalem since the Har Homa enclave was started in 1997. It could hardly come at a more delicate time: last month the Palestinians asked the United Nations Security council to recognize a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem.
Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said she "deplored" the latest Israeli decision and urged the government to halt the project, citing concern it would cut off Arab Jerusalem off from Bethlehem. Both Ashton and Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. chief, reiterated that Israeli settlement activity in east Jerusalem is contrary to international law.
Israel has argued that east Jerusalem should not be considered occupied because it has extended citizenship rights to its Arab residents, although only several thousand of the city's quarter million Arab residents have taken advantage of this. The international community has not recognized Israel's annexations.
Israel claims Geneva Conventions forbidding colonization of occupied land should not apply because the West Bank and Gaza exist in sovereignty limbo _ no longer claimed by Jordan and Egypt, who ruled them before 1967, while the Palestinians have never had a state.
Miller, the Jerusalem city spokesman, said anyone could move into apartments there. But Jerusalem's newer housing developments have effectively been segregated by the acquiescence of all concerned _ although in recent years, some Palestinians have moved into Jewish neighborhoods because of housing shortages in Arab areas.
Associated Press writer Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem contributed reporting.