JERUSALEM: The approval of more than 1,000 new homes in Har Homa, a settlement suburb in occupied east Jerusalem, has prompted a wave of international condemnation, but residents here can’t understand all the fuss.
A quiet suburb, with steep, winding roads, Har Homa’s white stone buildings command a spectacular view of the nearby town of Bethlehem in the southern West Bank.
In the early afternoon, children attending one of the four elementary schools here trickle out of classes, some stopping by the ice-cream shop on HaMamtzi Street before heading home.
Next door, Amir Levy, who moved to Har Homa eight years ago, is getting his beard trimmed at the Kfir Magen hairdresser.
"We live here because we see it like a regular neighborhood in our city that I was born in 40 years ago," he said.
"It’s not a different area if you’re talking about Jerusalem. It’s the same, so I liked the place and that’s all. I didn’t move here for ideological reasons."
But Har Homa is at the centre of a new storm over Jewish settlement building on occupied Palestinian land, and the news on Monday that Israel had approved more than 1,025 new housing units here prompted widespread international criticism.
President Barack Obama, who spearheaded the relaunch of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in September, warned that "this kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations."
Talks have been on hold since late September, when a 10-month Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlement construction expired, with the Palestinians refusing to talk until the ban is reimposed.
The building freeze did not apply to east Jerusalem neighborhoods like Har Homa, though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had quietly held off approving projects there while talks were underway.
"This is actually a provocation by the Israeli government in a very sensitive moment of the negotiations, which might cause the collapse of the peace process," said Hagit Ofran of settlement watchdog Peace Now.
"I think it’s a test, that Netanyahu is trying to see how far he can go," she told AFP.
Har Homa has been controversial since its construction was first approved in 1997, during Netanyahu’s first term in office.
At the time, the move sparked angry response from the United States as well as from the Palestinians who denounced the project, saying it would complete a ring of Jewish settlements around east Jerusalem, effectively cutting off the city.
The move also contributed to the breakdown of peace talks shortly afterwards.
"Har Homa is kind of Netanyahu’s baby," said Ofran, who described the settlement neighborhood as "a symbol of Netanyahu’s refusal of peace."
On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s office defended the construction here, saying "Jerusalem is not a settlement — Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel."
"Israel sees no connection between the peace process and the planning and building policies in Jerusalem that have not changed for the last 40 years," his office said.
Israel insists that the whole of Jerusalem is the country’s "eternal, indivisible capital." It does not consider Har Homa to be a settlement because it is within the city’s municipal boundaries, which were drawn up after the eastern sector was occupied and annexed in 1967.
The annexation of east Jerusalem was never recognized by the international community or the Palestinians, who want the city’s eastern half as the capital of their promised state.
Benny Cohen, who lives here with his wife and daughter, said Israel has every right to expand construction in Har Homa.
"It’s belonging to Jewish people and I don’t see any problem with this."
And for Levy, the uproar over the new housing is ridiculous.
"It’s normal, it’s like you have a city like New York and they want to build five more buildings. It’s not a big deal," he told AFP.
Others here, like 70-year-old Hephsibar Abraham, who immigrated to Israel from India in 1959, simply ignore international pronouncements on the legality of their home.
"I think it is not my concern, it is only the government’s concern," said Abraham, who received government help to relocate to Har Homa with her disabled brother and sister from the town of Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv.
"I have to live somewhere," she said. "What the government has said is that I should live here."