JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government gave the go-ahead last night for a controversial Jewish housing project in Arab East Jerusalem, overriding U.S. objections and warnings of a violent reaction from the Palestinians.
Announcing the decision yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government also approved construction of housing for Arabs.
But critics were not mollified by the gesture.
Palestinian officials immediately denounced the decision as a violation of peace accords and warned of a potential explosion of violence.
The White House said the move "further complicates an already complicated situation."
"Frankly, the United States would have preferred a different decision," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman.
King Hussein of Jordan, Israel's staunch Arab friend, appealed to Netanyahu to reverse the decision, which he said undermined the Arab-Israeli peace process.
An attorney for Arab landowners and a Jewish developer who owns one-third of the property on the pine-forested hill said they would sue to stop the 6,500-unit project on the outskirts of Jerusalem at a place known to Jews as Har Homa and to Arabs as Jabal Abu Ghneim.
The government would build 3,500 housing units for Arabs in the same area, Netanyahu said.
"Our vision of peace includes peaceful coexistence and harmony between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs," said Netanyahu after the meeting of the government's Jerusalem committee. "And we are following on this principle in our decision today."
Netanyahu said the 1993 Middle East peace accords signed with the Palestinians do not prohibit Israel from building on land under its control. But Palestinians consider East Jerusalem to be occupied territory captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war. Before the war, Jerusalem was a divided city, with the
eastern sector under Jordanian rule.
Arafat 'very worried'
Marwan Kanafani, a top aide to Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian authority, said Arafat is "very worried about the future of the peace process, security and stability in the region as a result of this Israeli official challenge to the feelings of the Palestinian nation and the Islamic and Arab nation."
Kanafani told the radio station Voice of Palestine that the Palestinian Cabinet would meet to discuss "this dangerous subject."
For the past week, Netanyahu has repeatedly said he would move ahead with plans to develop the new Jewish neighborhood nestled between two Palestinian areas in southeast Jerusalem. The only question has been when the decision would be confirmed.
Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh said construction at the site and in Arab neighborhoods would begin as soon as the plans are signed by the labor minister.
A housing shortage
Netanyahu defended the decision to build the project and 3,015 units in 10 Arab neighborhoods as a way to alleviate a housing shortage for both populations.
"Israelis and Palestinians, especially young families have no housing and there hasn't been sufficient construction. They're going to other towns. We have decided to ameliorate this situation by making two decisions today."
In an effort to ease Arab concerns, Netanyahu earlier in the day called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to explain the project. He reiterated Israel's commitment to the peace process. The prime minister met Sunday with King Hussein for the same reason.
Netanyahu has faced pressure from all sides on the Jerusalem question.
Hard-liners in his government have threatened to bolt the coalition if the project was delayed. They view Har Homa as essential to solidifying the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and retaining the city as the united capital of Israel.
Palestinian leaders have warned that the start of construction would provoke unrest among their people who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of an independent Palestinian state. They contend that the project will sabotage the peace process.
"This policy can destroy everything," Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian authority's chief official in Jerusalem, told Israeli parliament members yesterday. "We are smelling the smell which was just before the intifada. This smell is there. Everything is ready for an explosion."
Fearing a replay of clashes that rocked Israel last fall after the opening of an access route to a tourist tunnel in Jerusalem, city police beefed up patrols in East Jerusalem and the vicinity of Har Homa, a spokesman said.
Dozens of soldiers were positioned along the route to Har Homa, located between Kibbutz Ramat Rachel and the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem.
David Myr, the Israeli developer who wants to build his own housing complex at the site, is taking steps to stop the plan. He filed a petition Tuesday with Israel's Supreme Court, seeking an independent expert to determine the best plan for the site -- his or the government's.
Daniel Seidemann, the lawyer representing the 56 Arab landowners, said the question of legality of the Har Homa project "is a serious one."
"We have very substantive claims of a public nature and constitutionally," said Seidemann. "It is indeed possible the Supreme Court will intervene."
Seidemann said the area could be developed rationally for the benefit of the people who live there.
"Har Homa could have been built on the planning merits of the case and based on dialogue," he said. "To try and do that today is going to be far more difficult, because it's been turned into an arm wrestling match."
But Seidemann said his clients are willing to negotiate with the government.
Pub Date: 2/27/97