JERUSALEM — Jerusalem’s mayor unveiled a plan Tuesday to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes to make room for a tourist center in one of the disputed city’s most volatile neighborhoods, drawing criticism from Palestinians and the United Nations.
Mayor Nir Barkat agreed to a last-minute request from Israel’s prime minister to consult Palestinian residents before breaking ground. That could delay the plan for an unknown period of time, but the move threatened to raise tensions in the holy city just as the Obama administration makes a push to renew Mideast peace talks.
“There is no way the Palestinians can accept the demolishing of houses in Jerusalem and the continuation of building settlements for the Jewish settlers, while the United States is trying to bring the parties together,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Ishtayeh told The Associated Press. “We fully and totally condemn all these Israeli measures.”
At a news conference, Barkat presented his plan as a much needed upgrade of Jerusalem’s decaying al-Bustan neighborhood, which Israeli officials have begun calling Gan Hamelech, or the King’s Garden, linking it to the site where the biblical King David is said to have written his psalms.
The city wants to build shops, restaurants, art galleries and a large community center replete with day care facilities and gyms. Barkat said the area’s Palestinian residents, subject to decades of neglect, will benefit, and that most of those who would lose their homes would be eligible for alternative housing, though it was unclear who would pay for it.
“The conditions in which these residents live are intolerable. The goal of the plan is to find solutions,” said Barkat, a hawkish, secular politician who became mayor after amassing a fortune in hi-tech.
But few Israeli moves in east Jerusalem are benign in Palestinian eyes. The Palestinians hope to make that part of the city — captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — the capital of a future state. They see Barkat’s plan as another way for Israel to cement its control there. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after capturing it, but no other country recognized the move.
Moussa Owdeh, a 58-year-old Palestinian whose home is one of 88 slated for demolition, accused Barkat of fomenting “extremism and bloodshed.”
“This is our land and home,” he said, holding up a document he said was the title to the property. “Our house is a symbol of our dignity.”
Apparently fearing stiff criticism from the U.S., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Barkat to hold the plan up for consultations with the affected Palestinians. Barkat agreed.
Israel has faced sharp criticism for demolishing Palestinian homes it says were built illegally in east Jerusalem. Much of the unapproved construction takes place because Palestinians have a hard time obtaining building permits, and a new report Tuesday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said only 13 percent of east Jerusalem has been zoned for Palestinian construction.
Al-Bustan, a section of a larger Jerusalem neighborhood known as Silwan, is located across from the walls of the Old City, with its sacred shrines holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The neighborhood is home to some 50,000 Palestinians and around 70 Jewish families.
Just to the west of al-Bustan is a newly constructed archaeological park called the City of David, run by Jewish settlers.
Settlers have illegally erected an apartment building elsewhere in Silwan, and on Monday a security guard was shot and wounded there. On a recent morning, residents of the building showed reporters black marks caused by Molotov cocktails thrown at the front door.
Silwan has become a nexus of tension between Palestinians fearful of eviction and Jews determined to ensure the holy city remains Israel’s undivided capital. It’s also become a flashpoint of potential friction between Israel’s right-leaning government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an international community seeking to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We’re trying to reduce tensions at the current time, not exacerbate them,” said Richard Miron, spokesman for the U.N.’s Mideast envoy. “Whatever the intentions behind such a project, Israel needs to understand that demolishing Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem demolishes confidence among Palestinians and frankly, also internationally.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down more than a year ago, when Israel launched a bruising offensive against the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers. Barkat’s announcement came as the U.S. is pushing hard to restart the talks. Vice President Joe Biden is due to arrive in the region next week, and U.S. envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling between the sides in recent months to try to resume negotiations.
Additional reporting from Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem.