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Construction at Har Homa could begin in two weeks

JERUSALEM, Feb. 25 (JTA) — Construction of a controversial new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem could begin within two weeks. The Har Homa project has been vehemently opposed by Palestinians and just as strongly endorsed by members of Netanyahu’s Likud-led Cabinet as well as several Labor Knesset members. In remarks to reporters Tuesday at the Knesset, Netanyahu said construction at Har Homa was within Israel’s full rights as the sovereign power in the city and warned against a violent Palestinian reaction to the plan. “I want to clarify unequivocally: We will build in all of Jerusalem. We will also build at Har Homa,” Netanyahu said. “Whoever wants the peace process to continue will understand that violence will achieve nothing.” Approval of the first phase of building at Har Homa, totaling some 2,450 housing units, was expected at a Wednesday meeting of a ministerial committee dealing with Jerusalem affairs. The committee also was expected to be presented with plans for the construction of a similar number of housing units for Arab residents in some 10 neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. Once the committee approves construction at Har Homa, bulldozers will begin clearing land within about two weeks. This would coincide with the first of three Israeli redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank called for in the Hebron agreement, signed Jan. 17 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Under the terms of that accord, Israel was to carry out the first of those redeployments by the end of the first week in March; the final redeployment was scheduled to be completed by mid-1998. Israeli security officials were quoted as telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that if the Palestinians responded violently to the Har Homa decision, the first redeployment could be delayed. Palestinian officials have warned that construction at Har Homa would torpedo the peace process and could unleash a violent reaction that would dwarf the riots that erupted in September after Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Fifteen Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed during the three days of violence. The Palestinians, who want eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, view the Har Homa project as changing the status quo in the city, whose future is to be determined in the final-status negotiations. Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian Authority’s top official in Jerusalem, told reporters Tuesday that Israel is “playing with fire,” adding that “there will be an explosion” if the Har Homa project proceeded. The U.N. Security Council expressed concern Tuesday about Israel’s plans and called for restraint so as not to undo the Middle East peace process. A group of E.U. diplomats in Jerusalem on Tuesday also voiced its reservations about the project. Israeli officials counter that the project will help alleviate a housing shortage in Jerusalem. They also say it will provide needed housing for Arab residents of the city. From a legal standpoint, they point out, there is no basis to Palestinian claims that the planned construction represents a violation of any signed agreements, adding that the Jewish state has no obligation to coordinate such plans with the Palestinian Authority. When Netanyahu recently returned from a trip to the United States, he drew fire from conservative members of his coalition over rumors that he had promised President Clinton to freeze the Har Homa project to avoid tensions with the Palestinians. Members of the opposition also joined the chorus of complaints against delays in construction, noting that the Har Homa project had been approved by the previous government.