Israel to plow ahead with Har Homa construction plan

JERUSALEM — Construction of a controversial new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem could begin within two weeks.

The Har Homa project has sparked vehement opposition by Palestinians and has won just as strong backing by members of Netanyahu's Likud-led Cabinet plus several Labor Knesset members.

In remarks to reporters Tuesday at the Knesset, Netanyahu said construction at Har Homa was within Israel's full rights as the sovereign power in the city and warned against a violent Palestinian reaction to the plan.

"I want to clarify unequivocally: We will build in all of Jerusalem. We will also build at Har Homa," Netanyahu said.

"Whoever wants the peace process to continue will understand that violence will achieve nothing."

Formal approval of the first phase of building at Har Homa, some 2,450 housing units, came at a Wednesday meeting of a ministerial committee dealing with Jerusalem affairs. Plans call for a total of some 6,500 housing units.

The construction of 3,000 housing units for Arabs in 10 eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods was also approved.

With the committee's approval in place, bulldozers will begin clearing land at Har Homa within about two weeks.

This would coincide with the first of three Israeli redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank called for in the Hebron agreement, signed Jan. 17 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Under the terms of that accord, Israel was to carry out the first of those redeployments by the end of the first week in March; the final redeployment was scheduled to be completed by mid-1998.

Israeli security officials were quoted as telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that if the Palestinians responded violently to the Har Homa decision, the first redeployment could be delayed.

Palestinian officials have warned that construction at Har Homa would torpedo the peace process and could unleash a violent reaction that would dwarf the riots that erupted in September after Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Fifteen Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed during the three days of violence.

The Palestinians, who want eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, view the Har Homa project as changing the status quo in the city, whose future is to be determined in the final-status negotiations.

Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian Authority's top official in Jerusalem, told reporters Tuesday that Israel is "playing with fire," adding that "there will be an explosion" if the Har Homa project proceeded.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Palestinians protested on Har Homa, some waving placards saying, "Jabal Abu Gneim will not become Har Homa." Abu Gneim is the Arabic name for the hill between the Arab villages of Sur Bahir and Beit Sahur.

Edward Abington, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, warned Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, who is scheduled to meet next week with President Clinton in Washington, not to encourage Palestinian violence.

Abington also said Wednesday that Israel should not take unilateral steps that threaten the peace process.

A White House spokesman, David Johnson, said shortly before the ministerial committee met that approval of the Har Homa project was "not the type of action we believe would help build" confidence and trust.

The U.N. Security Council expressed concern Tuesday about Israel's plans and called for restraint so as not to undo peace moves.

A group of European Union diplomats in Jerusalem on Tuesday also voiced its reservations about the project.

Israeli officials counter that the project will help alleviate a housing shortage in Jerusalem.

From a legal standpoint, they point out, there is no basis to Palestinian claims that the planned construction represents a violation of any signed agreements, adding that the Jewish state has no obligation to coordinate such plans with the Palestinian Authority.

When Netanyahu recently returned from a trip to the United States, he drew fire from conservative members of his coalition over rumors that he had promised President Clinton to freeze the Har Homa project to avoid tensions with the Palestinians.

Members of the opposition also joined the chorus of complaints against delays in construction, noting that the Har Homa project had been approved by the previous government.