The mayor of Jerusalem asked Israel's prime minister on Wednesday to adopt his plan to rezone some of the city's Arab neighborhoods and suspend demolitions of homes built there without permits.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mayor Nir Barkat wrote that his plan would improve the lives of the city's Arab residents. However, critics said the rezoning plan would heighten tensions because it also involves demolishing 22 Arab homes in one of the most volatile areas of Jerusalem, near the walled Old City.
The fate of Jerusalem is to be determined in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Palestinians want to establish a capital in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War, while Netanyahu has said he opposes partition.
Talks resumed last month, but quickly ran aground over Israel's continued construction of settlements on war-won land.
Jerusalem's Arab residents, who make up about one-third of the city's population, are suffering from a growing housing crunch. Over the years, many have resorted to building homes without municipal permits, which they say are virtually impossible to maintain. Palestinians say the permit policy is part of an Israeli attempt to limit the number of Arabs in the city and maintain a Jewish majority.
Barkat _ who like Netanyahu opposes a partition of the city _ wrote Wednesday that he seeks government support for rezoning four Arab districts, thus retroactively legalizing the vast majority of illegal structures there. During the rezoning process, home demolitions would be halted. Barkat said he eventually plans to expand the policy to all neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
The international community has repeatedly urged Israel to halt house demolitions in east Jerusalem.
In Barkat's first rezoning plan earlier this year, he proposed retroactively legalizing 66 homes built without permits in the neighborhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City. Another 22 houses would be demolished, but owners would be able to rebuild nearby, according to that plan.
The municipality is advancing plans to build a tourism center in Silwan, with the involvement of a Jewish settler group.
Municipal spokesman Stephan Miller said the city is working closely with Arab residents in east Jerusalem, and that many have approached the mayor with requests for rezoning after he announced the Silwan pilot project.
However, critics noted that the city has so far rejected all proposed zoning plans put together by Arab residents, including in Silwan.
Barkat's main aim is to promote the settler project in Silwan, said Daniel Seidemann, head of Ir Amim, an Israeli group that supports coexistence in Jerusalem. "This is clearly an assault on the residents of Silwan, not a bona fide effort to improve things," he said of Barkat's proposals. "It will make a volatile situation even more volatile."
Tensions have been running high in Silwan between settlers and Palestinian residents. Barkat's proposal concerning Silwan has won preliminary planning approval, but still requires a nod from the government.
Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment Wednesday.
The international community would likely welcome a halt to house demolitions in Jerusalem. However, approval of the Silwan plan, including razing 22 homes there, could pose a new threat to attempts to revive peace talks.