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Obama raps Israel over new Jerusalem settlement plan

Israel pushed forward a plan to expand an East Jerusalem settlement on Tuesday, bringing stark warnings from President Obama and other world leaders.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2009

Palestinian men work on a construction site of a housing development in the neighborhood of Gilo, in Jerusalem, Wednesday.

Dan Balilty/AP

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Israel approved the expansion of a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem on Tuesday, drawing criticism from US, British, and Palestinian officials.

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On Tuesday, the City of Jerusalem's municipal planning committee approved the construction of 900 more housing units in Gilo. The area in southern Jerusalem is deemed by Palestinians and most of the international community to have been illegally occupied since it was seized by Israel, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, in 1967's Six-Day War.

President Barack Obama warned in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday morning that Israel's decision could lead to conflict.

"I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel's security. I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbors," President Obama said. "I think it embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous."

Also Wednesday, Israel bulldozed a Palestinian home in East Jerusalem after its owners failed to get a permit from the municipality.

The Gilo plan will now go through a few months of input, objections, and appeals from the general public, which means that the bulldozers aren't about to level ground yet.

But the very act of pushing such a plan forward has elicited a torrent of criticism from the international community and local peace activists, since it comes at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions have edged higher and diplomatic efforts have been faltering.

Eye on annexing settlements

The move to expand Gilo is one of several plans – some proposed but not approved – to build up the southern area of East Jerusalem as a way to connect it to with the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of the city. The existing Har Gilo settlement in the West Bank, for instance, is just a few miles southwest of Gilo.

Israeli officials are hoping to annex the settlements – many of which have become bedroom communities of Jerusalem – in any potential peace agreement with the Palestinians. By building more homes nearby, it becomes easier to connect West Bank settlements to Jerusalem, says Haim Erlich of Ir Amim, an Israeli organization that defines itself as working for "an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future." The NGO argues against Israel creating "facts on the ground" in Jerusalem, saying that makes it harder to arrive at a just two-state solution with the Palestinians.

"This is the concept that Israel has very been successful with in the past. Not by putting in soldiers or walls, but houses," says Mr. Erlich, Ir Amim's coordinator of policy advocacy. He says that the plan in question, along with another private developer's proposal to build 14,000 housing units just west of Gilo in an area called Walajeh, which straddles the East Jerusalem/West Bank border – is a way to put immovable chess pieces onto the geopolitical board.

"The idea is by putting in these neighborhoods, and by connecting Har Gilo to Jerusalem, this will become one big residential area," he says. "This was part of Ariel Sharon's idea of a 'Greater Jerusalem.' "

US, Britain critical

The Obama administration has been making its opposition clear to this approach, both in meetings with Israeli officials and more publicly.

Britain has also been critical of Israel's policy, saying in a statement released by the UK's Jerusalem office that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was disappointed by Israel's moves.