JERUSALEM, April 23 (Adam Entous/Reuters) – Israel’s mayor of Jerusalem rebuffed on Thursday Palestinian and Western calls for a halt to demolitions in the city’s Arab eastern half, saying laws that prohibit illegal building were being enforced.
Mayor Nir Barkan said his goal was to maintain a Jewish majority in Jerusalem but denied that demolitions of Palestinian homes were meant to drive them out.
The demolitions, and calls by Barkan to expand Jewish settlements on occupied land, have stoked tensions in the city, and put Israel on a possible collision course with its U.S. and European allies.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the demolitions, and the proposed construction of new homes on West Bank land, "will mean killing the two-state solution forever."
Barkan said the demolitions were not politically-motivated.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month the practice was "unhelpful."
Israel’s Jerusalem municipality said demolition orders are issued in cases in which houses are constructed without building permits and are carried out after court review. Palestinians say they find it nearly impossible to obtain such permits.
"Me, as mayor, and the legal system in Israel, are obliged to make sure people fulfil the law," Barkan said in an interview with a small group of reporters in his office.
Between 2004 and 2008, between 100 and 130 buildings per year were demolished in Jerusalem, the mayor’s office said.
About two-thirds of them were in East Jerusalem and one-third in Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, the mayor’s office said.
So far this year, the mayor’s office said 35 homes have been demolished, 20 of them in East Jerusalem and the rest in West Jerusalem. So far this year, all of the building permit requests from East Jerusalem — 26 — were granted, his office said.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and considers all of the city its capital, a claim that does not have international recognition. The Palestinian Authority wants Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state.
Barkan said his goal was to maintain a "Jewish majority" in the city by creating more jobs and housing, including in an area of occupied land that Israel sees as a critical link between Jerusalem and the sprawling Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim.
The administration of US President Barack Obama, like its predecessor, opposes construction in the area that Israel calls E1, as well as in other settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinians say building in E1 in particular would deny them a viable state by cutting the West Bank in two.
Figures vary but roughly 750,000 people live in what Israel defines as Jerusalem. About one in three is an Arab, mostly Muslims with some Christians, and half a million are Jews.
Barkan said some 6,000 Jews were leaving per year due to a lack of business opportunities and the high price of housing. In contrast, he said, the city’s Arab population was growing, creating what he called an "imbalance."
The mayor said his policies were meant to ensure "the Jewish population stays … to keep the ratio between Jews and Arabs in order to make sure that Jerusalem has a Jewish majority as the Jewish capital of the world".
But he added: "I do not have a policy of demolitions as part of maintaining any kind of balance."