Israel Quickens East Jerusalem Building as Prisoners Freed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to speed up construction in areas of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians after today’s release of 26 Palestinian security prisoners sparked opposition among political allies.

The move drew immediate condemnation from the Palestinians, who linked the two developments, and had sought the prisoner release from Israel as a concession that allowed the resumption of long-stalled peace talks in July.

The building plans, which had been previously announced and were in varying stages of planning approval, include a housing project that created a diplomatic feud with the U.S. in 2010 and two tourist parks near the Old City, according to a government official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on the record.

“We have to show that we are building in Jerusalem,” Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said today in an interview on Army Radio. He said he thought that decision was made “within the framework of our releasing these murderers.”

Palestinians oppose all Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, which they see as cementing Israel’s presence in an area they claim as the capital of a future independent state. The U.S., United Nations and European Union, which do not recognize Israel’s annexation of areas captured from Jordan in 1967, have also condemned such construction as impeding the peace process.

‘Childish Steps’

“These childish steps and decisions are intended to satisfy parts of the Israeli government, or even people outside of it,” said Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian official who deals with prisoner issues, in an interview on Israel Radio.

Netanyahu has said he will not cede territory in east Jerusalem, home to shrines sacred to Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

“This makes the Palestinians and Arabs lose confidence in the ability of this government to make peace,” Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement, referring to the Netanyahu government.

One of the projects to be expedited is a 1,500-apartment expansion of the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, a project that created deep frictions with the U.S. when its approval was announced during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Heroes’ Welcome

Israel freed the prisoners, some convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis, overnight in the second round of the planned release of a total of 104. Five were taken to the Gaza Strip and the remainder to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where they were greeted by a rally that included Abbas and other officials.

“We welcome our heroes who came from behind bars to the world of freedom,” Abbas told the crowd.

The release of the prisoners was opposed by several members of Netanyahu’s government, including lawmakers from his own Likud-Beitenu faction, and cabinet ministers from Jewish Home, the third-biggest party in the government.

“I don’t know about murderers in other countries being released because of negotiations. It is a moral mistake and sends the wrong message,” Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon of Netanyahu’s Likud party said at a Jerusalem briefing today.

“The decision to free prisoners is one of the hardest I made,” Netanyahu said Oct. 28 at a meeting with members of his faction. “This decision was necessary in our current reality. We have to steer through a complex international arena full of challenges.”

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