- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

TEL AVIV

The Palestinian Authority is protesting an Israeli plan to raze an Arab neighborhood just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, warning it could spark violence and doom any prospects to renew peace talks.

Days before Sunday’s arrival in Egypt by Hillary Rodham Clinton on her first trip to the region as secretary of state, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority sent letters to the Obama administration as well as to the U.N. Security Council purporting that Israel is moving ahead on erecting a national park in a religiously sensitive section of the East Jerusalem district of Silwan.

“It’s just meters from the Al Aqsa mosque, and if something happens at the Al Aqsa mosque, I don´t know what will happen in the Arab countries,” said Ahmed Rwaidy, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Jerusalem. “It means going back to zero.”

Many Muslims consider the Al Aqsa mosque the third-holiest site in Islam.

A statement released by newly elected Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat denied any new orders had been issued on house demolitions, but affirmed that illegal Arab construction is to be replaced by “open space.”

Silwan is especially sensitive to changes in the status quo because it is part of a continuum of religious sites running from the Old City eastward known as the holy basin. Sovereignty over the districts lies at the heart of the dispute over Jerusalem, one of the core stumbling blocks to resolving Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinian alarm was touched off by a visit of Israeli government surveyors escorted by border police to the neighborhood on Feb. 22. In recent weeks, the Israeli Interior Ministry rejected a master plan development proposal for the neighborhood submitted by its Palestinian residents.

Meanwhile, a municipal representative recently made an offer to compensate the residents and relocate them elsewhere in East Jerusalem, or face eviction.

Danny Seideman, a specialist in urban development, said that while he doubted demolitions were imminent, a plan to consolidate Israeli control over the holy basin is being promoted from the Israeli prime minister’s office. Mr. Seideman said the development plan is inspired by Jewish settlers who want to see Israel consolidate its hold on Jerusalem.

“New and dangerous things are happening. [Demolitions] will not happen tomorrow, but it can happen in a matter of weeks,” Mr. Seideman said. “This undermines the potential for a two-state solution and a genuinely shared Jerusalem.”

The Jerusalem municipal plan for Silwan, referred to by city authorities as King’s Valley, first came to light in 2005. International pressure on then-Mayor Uri Lupuliansky prompted the municipality to abandon the plan. Instead, the municipality invited the Palestinians to draw up a master plan for development for the neighborhood.

The municipality said that because of the area’s proximity to holy sites of the three major monotheistic religions, it is an important tourist destination.

“It is important to the future of Jerusalem that this area be treated with the utmost strategic importance,” said the mayor’s statement. “Emek HaMelekh [King’s Valley] is not intended for residential development, but rather it is intended to be an open public space.”

Despite U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks over the last year of the Bush administration, Israel continued to expand Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, sowing frustration on the Palestinian street and between negotiators.

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