An Israeli-Palestinian showdown over plans for new Jewish settlements around Jerusalem escalated on Wednesday. Israel pushed the most contentious of the projects further along in the planning pipeline, and the Palestinian president said he would seek UN Security Council help to block the construction.
Israel is moving ahead despite mounting international condemnation of its settlement plans, some of them activated last week in retaliation for the UN General Assembly's acceptance of a state of Palestine as a non-member observer.
Israel has built dozens of settlements for half a million Israelis since its 1967 capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — the lands the UN now says make up the state of Palestine. The spread and growth of settlements has made an eventual partition, the internationally backed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, increasingly difficult.
More than 7,500 units in 2 planned settlements
The Palestinians are particularly concerned about plans for more than 7,500 apartments and hundreds of hotel rooms in two future settlements, known as E-1 and Givat Hamatos, on the eastern and southern edges of Jerusalem.
Critics say the settlements would cut off traditionally Arab east Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland and destroy hopes for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as a shared capital.
'The settlement plans that Israel announced ... are a red line.' —Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Israel had frozen E-1 plans under pressure from successive U.S. administrations, but it revived them last week after UN recognition of Palestine. Actual construction would be years away.
On Wednesday, an Israeli planning committee in the West Bank decided to "deposit" a plan for 3,400 homes there, meaning the project is moving one step further in the approval pipeline, although the final go-ahead for construction has not been given.
Givat Hamatos, where some 4,000 apartments are planned, is also moving forward. A district planning committee is set to discuss the next approval step in mid-December.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he is determined to block the settlement building near Jerusalem with all legal and diplomatic means.
"The settlement plans that Israel announced, especially E-1, are a red line," Abbas told reporters, adding that "this must not happen."
The Palestinian representative to the UN has contacted the UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, and the head of the Security Council to sound out the possibilities for a council resolution against settlements, Abbas said.
U.S. previously used veto power
Nearly two years ago, the U.S. vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning settlements as illegal, while the 14 other members supported the draft. Shielding its closest ally, the U.S. said at the time that while it considers settlements illegitimate, it believes council censure would harm peace efforts.
It was not immediately clear whether the U.S. would use its veto this time around. Although the U.S. has traditionally protected Israel from UN criticism, American officials have harshly condemned Israel's decision to revive the E1 development plan and would not want to be seen as giving it tacit backing.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said that if the U.S. wants to avoid Security Council action, it should pressure Israel to abort its construction plans for the Jerusalem area.
"If the U.S. can stop the Israelis without the Security Council, they should do it," he said. "They (the Americans) cannot stop us and use the veto against people trying to save the peace process."
If the settlements are built, "the idea of peace, the idea of a two-state solution, will disappear," he said.
Danny Seidemann, an Israeli activist for co-existence in Jerusalem, said that if E-1 is the two-state solution's "fatal heart attack," then the plans for Givat Hamatos "are the silent killer, high blood pressure."
"They kill you just as dead, though not as dramatically, with a flourish, as is the case with E-1," he said of Givat Hamatos.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinians should resume talks with Israel, instead of turning to the UN. "Here is where it's at, not in New York," Palmor said. "If they have something to say, let them say it to us, directly."
Israeli-Palestinian talks have been frozen for the past four years, with Palestinians saying they cannot go back to the table as long as Israel keeps building on occupied land. Israel argues there should be no conditions.
After last week's General Assembly vote, Israel appears increasingly isolated, facing strident international criticism of its continued construction on war-won land the world overwhelmingly said belongs to the Palestinians. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was in Europe on Wednesday.
He stopped in the Czech Republic, one of only eight countries to vote with Israel at the UN last week, before headed to Germany. Germany, one of Israel's closest allies in Europe, abstained in the vote, and has spoken out against the latest settlement plans.
More than half a dozen countries have summoned local Israeli ambassadors since the beginning of the week to protest the latest building plans, including Italy on Wednesday.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the British parliament Tuesday that there might be further diplomatic steps, though he suggested Europe is not considering economic sanctions against Israel for now.