JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli authorities gave initial approval on Wednesday for the construction of 200 new homes in an urban settlement in Jerusalem, a move that could aggravate tensions with Palestinians that Washington is trying to lower.
Violence has flared in the past few weeks over Jerusalem's most sacred and politically sensitive site, holy to both Jews and Muslims. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due in Jordan on Wednesday for talks with King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on efforts to calm the situation.
The new housing is slated for Ramot, a sprawling hillside complex of apartment buildings and private homes at the northern edge of Jerusalem, on land Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city in a move never recognized internationally. Palestinians want this territory as part of a future state.
Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, said its planning committee granted preliminary approval for a private contractor to build the 200 housing units on land he purchased in Ramot. The project must pass several more stages before construction could begin, she said.
Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a senior aide to Abbas, said in response to the announcement: "It looks like during every visit by Kerry to the region, (Israel) threatens to build new settler homes. This is a continuous escalation and contributes to a negative atmosphere."
Last month, an Israeli decision to accelerate planning for some 1,000 new settler homes in mainly Arab East Jerusalem drew Palestinian anger and international condemnation.
That project, along with Palestinian concerns about visits by far-right Jewish legislators to the Jerusalem religious site - revered by Muslims as Nobel Sanctuary and Jews as Temple Mount - prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Palestinians fear settlements will block the creation of an independent state they seek in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and most countries view them as illegal.
Israel, citing Biblical links to Jerusalem, says Jews have a right to live anywhere in the city, which it regards as its "indivisible" capital.
Reporting by Ori Lewis, additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Jerusalem, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Mark Heinrich