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U.S chides Israel, cautions Palestinians about Har Homa

JERUSALEM, Feb. 26 (JTA) — U.S. officials have criticized a decision by Israel to go ahead with construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem. Wednesday’s endorsement by the Ministerial Committee on Jerusalem of the plan to build at Har Homa had been anticipated in recent days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision by the 12 of his 18 Cabinet ministers who sit on the committee, adding that the plan to build the first 2,500 of 6,500 planned housing units at Har Homa would help ease an acute housing shortage in the capital. Stressing the Israeli government’s concern for both Jewish and Arab residents of the city, he announced that the committee also had approved the construction of 3,000 housing units for Arabs residents of Jerusalem. “There is a growing need over years for construction, for both Israelis and Palestinians, especially young families,” Netanyahu told a news conference. “It is important for both populations, Palestinian and Israeli.” In Washington, however, the committee’s decision did not go over well. The decision “is not a step that will build trust and confidence,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said at a briefing Wednesday. “Frankly, the United States would have preferred a different decision.” Burns also criticized the recent Palestinian warnings that a go-ahead for construction at Har Homa could lead to violence. “People who threaten violence and people who incite violence and practice it are speaking the language of the past,” he said. “The language of the present is to sit down and negotiate differences.” Burns added that the Har Homa issue was certain to be part of the discussions between President Clinton and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat during his scheduled visit to Washington next week. Final approval for construction must now be made by Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Eliyahu Yishai, who has expressed his backing for the plan in the past. Bulldozers could begin clearing land at Har Homa within about two weeks, according to Israeli officials. Israeli security forces have meanwhile gone on heightened alert in anticipation of potential Palestinian violence.