The Jerusalem municipality will push ahead with plans to demolish 88 homes in an Arab neighborhood in the disputed city to make room for a national park, the city engineer overseeing the project told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The plan has infuriated the Palestinians. It comes at a time of growing Israeli-Palestinian tension over the fate of Jerusalem, a city claimed by both as a capital. The demolition campaign, if approved, would be one of the largest in east Jerusalem since Israel captured the traditionally Arab sector in the 1967 Mideast war.
At issue is the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, just outside the walled Old City and close to key holy sites, such as Islam's Al Aqsa Mosque and Judaism's Western Wall.
City engineer Uri Shetrit said nearly all homes in the part of Silwan marked for demolition had been built in violation of zoning regulations and that courts already issued demolition orders against one-third of the 88 homes. Once the houses are razed, the park will be established "as soon as possible," he added.
Shetrit said the idea is to restore a biblical-era feel to the area that used to be covered with date and chestnut trees. An Israeli human rights activist, Danny Seidemann, accused the municipality of "moral autism."
Palestinian officials warned that violence could flare over house demolitions in Arab neighborhoods. In the past, disputes over Jerusalem have triggered large-scale Israeli-Palestinian fighting, including the current round that began in 2000.
Shetrit said the area of Silwan targeted for demolition had been declared a "green zone" by Israel in 1974. He said all but seven of the 88 homes were built in the past 12 years, and that the municipality has aerial photos to back up its claim.
Palestinian homeowners said many of the homes in the area were built at least 20 years ago.
Under city regulations, houses built without permits, but older than seven years, cannot be demolished. Shetrit acknowledged that because of this provision, the city would not be able to destroy many of the targeted homes. However, he said residents can be evicted from illegally built houses - and that it is easier to raze homes that stand empty.
"It is my authority and responsibility to enforce the law," Shetrit told AP in a telephone interview. "What would happen in a situation that I didn't act and there was an earthquake or flood and people were killed? Then you would say that the city engineer didn't carry out his responsibility and is a criminal."
"There can be a situation that politicians - whether in the city or in the national government - will decide to act differently, but then they remove the responsibility from me," Shetrit added.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Tuesday that Israel is entitled to enforce the law and demolish homes built without permits. Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists maintain that Israel uses zoning and other regulations in east Jerusalem as a tool of population control, to ensure that Arabs - who have higher birth rates than Jews - don't make up more than 30 percent of the city's residents.
Shetrit said seven homes built before 1967 will not be demolished.
However, among the homes targeted by the city for demolition is one built in 1961, according to owner Mohammed Badran, a retired employee of the Jerusalem municipality. Badran has been fighting the city in court since February, and a ruling is expected in July.
At least four of Badran's neighbors, whose homes were also built before 1967, have been served similar orders, said Sami Arshid, an attorney representing Badran and other neighborhood residents.
RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI, Associated Press Writer
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