Diaa Hadid
Associated Press
February 14, 2012 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government has given a hardline Jewish group permission to build a new archaeological center in a tense Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem, officials said Tuesday.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said Tuesday that a Jerusalem planning committee approved the project this week. The public has 60 days to appeal.

Any Israeli-backed project in east Jerusalem runs the risk of sparking protests that can escalate into violence, as conflicting claims to the area are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The center is to be built in Silwan, an impoverished neighborhood next to Jerusalem's Old City. Arab residents often clash with Israeli police and guards who protect 80 Jewish families who settled there.

The center is planned by Elad, a pro-settler group that runs archaeological digs in Silwan. It will be built above an excavation area called the City of David, leaving the ruins below accessible. The area is named for the biblical monarch thought to have ruled from the spot 3,000 years ago.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its eternal capital, although the annexation of the eastern sector has never been internationally recognized.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. They say that the Silwan development plan is part of a strategy meant to cement Israel's control over the area.

Interior Ministry spokesman Efrat Orbach said the Jerusalem district planning committee approved the archaeological center on Monday.

Opponents say that actual construction is unlikely to begin for months. Several Israeli groups said they would file appeals during the 60-day review period, opening the door for lengthy legal wrangling.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could also intervene to halt the project, said activists. Netanyahu has said he would never relinquish control over east Jerusalem. But concerns that the construction could set off violence could factor into his thinking.

Netanyahu, for instance, has delayed a contentious renovation project of a gate inside the Old City because of objections by Arab countries.

Yoni Mizrahi of the dovish group Emek Shaveh said projects like the archaeological center are a way for Israeli authorities to ensure their control of Silwan.

"Israeli authorities have been changing the landscape with archaeological and tourism projects," Mizrahi said. "The idea is that Israelis will never give this up, by creating facts on the ground."


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