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As Trump takes office in US, Israel pushes ahead with settlements

world Updated: Jan 23, 2017 09:00 IST
Donald Trump

A labourer works at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramot, as the Israeli settlement of Ramat Shlomo is seen in the background, in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem January 22, 2017.(Reuters)

The Jerusalem municipality said on Sunday it is pushing forward with 566 new housing units for Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem, swiftly moving into action as the seemingly favourable President Donald Trump takes office.

The building plans were put on hold in the final months of President Barack Obama’s administration and were announced shortly following Trump’s inauguration. Building is planned in the neighbourhoods of Ramot, Pisgat Zeev and Ramat Shlomo. It’s not clear whether the project needs further approvals or when construction would begin, but the government will likely have to sign off before anything gets underway.

Israel clashed frequently with Obama over construction in areas it conquered in the 1967 Mideast war but Israel’s hardline government has high expectations for Trump, who has signalled he will take a far kinder approach to them.

Read | US allows UN to condemn Israeli settlements, Netanyahu furious

Trump’s appointed ambassador to Israel has close ties to Jewish West Bank settlements as does the foundation run by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Tax records show Trump himself also donated money to a Jewish seminary in a settlement.

The international community largely regards settlements as illegal or illegitimate and a key obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike other West Bank settlements, Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers its neighbourhoods inseparable parts of its capital. But the Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital and consider Jewish neighbourhoods there just like any other settlements.

Israel says Jews have been in those areas for centuries, and that their presence there does not undermine prospects for peace. It also blames failed peace efforts on Arab denials of Jews’ historical connections to the land.

“We’ve been through eight tough years with Obama pressuring to freeze construction. Although the Jerusalem municipality has not frozen plans, many times we did not get government approval because of American pressure,” said Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. “I hope that era is over and we now we can build and develop Jerusalem for the welfare of its residents, Jews and Arabs alike.”

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the building plans and called on the United Nations to take action, particularly given a recent Security Council resolution that criticized the settlements.

“It is time to stop dealing with Israel as a state above the law,” he said.

Read | Israel protests UN vote condemning settlements, halts $6 million payment

US administrations have traditionally condemned all Israeli settlement plans as counterproductive. The Israeli government is still contemplating how best to move forward in the early days of the Trump administration, with some calling for immediate action given Trump’s perceived acquiescence and others calling for patience in order to work out a joint plan with the administration.

Israeli hardliners have been emboldened by the election of Trump. The pro-settler Jewish Home party, a key member of the coalition, is pushing the government to support legislation that would annex Maaleh Adumim, a large settlement located just outside of Jerusalem.

A Jewish Home official said Sunday that Netanyahu was pushing the party to put the legislation on hold, citing pressure from Trump not to do anything hastily. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the party was sceptical that Trump was really intervening and would push for a ministerial vote on the measure later in the day. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal coalition deliberations with the media.