By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
BRUSSELS, March 4 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the Israeli government on Wednesday for its plans to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, calling the actions "unhelpful" and a violation of international obligations.
Clinton made the rare public complaint about Israeli actions in response to a question at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israel's plans to destroy homes in Arab East Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider the capital of a future Palestinian state, have angered Palestinians.
The Jerusalem municipal government in recent weeks began planning to evict 1,500 residents and raze 88 homes in an area Israel has designated as a national park, on top of other demolition plans for the Silwan neighborhood. Israel says the houses were built without permits, but Palestinians say that permits are impossible to obtain and that many of the homes were built before Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Israel's subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem has not been internationally recognized.
"It is a matter of deep concern to those who are directly affected, but the ramifications go far beyond the individuals and families that have received the notices," Clinton said. "It will be taken up with the Israeli government.'
A visibly angry Abbas denounced the demolition plans, saying, "It is a clear message to us that whoever is undertaking these measures does not want peace."
During her three-day swing through the Middle East, Clinton generally had stepped gingerly in public when addressing sources of friction with Israel, such as the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. When queried about settlement activity by reporters, she tended to avoid answering and sometimes appeared to abstain from using the word "settlements," in favor of "that issue."
Palestinian officials said they view settlement activity as a key measure of whether the Obama administration will be able to influence the incoming Israeli government and push peace negotiations forward. Although upbeat about Clinton's comments, they were skeptical that -- in the end -- the planned demolitions in Silwan would be stopped, or other planned developments slowed or scaled back.
"We are happy, of course. . . . East Jerusalem has been ignored during Bush's time. We hope that will change," said Jawad Siyam, head of a Palestinian group opposed to the Silwan demolitions.
After Clinton's meetings with top Israeli politicians Tuesday, State Department officials refused to discuss whether she had privately raised concerns that Israel's tight control over border crossings in Gaza was thwarting humanitarian relief to the coastal strip devastated by a recent 22-day Israeli assault against the militant group Hamas. Only after the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Wednesday that Clinton had pressed the point, saying Israeli policy may be doing more harm than good, did she say she had discussed it.
Clinton's willingness to criticize Israel over the East Jerusalem plans -- on her first trip as secretary of state -- "is significant, but it is not enough," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician. "It has to be a strong stand. . . . They still support a two-state solution, but the window's closing."
Indeed, for much of her visit, Clinton appeared to echo the former U.S. administration's approach, denouncing Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, and hailing the Palestinian Authority "as the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people." Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.
The Palestinian newspaper al-Quds dubbed Clinton "Condoleezza Clinton," a biting reference to her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.
Speaking to reporters as she flew to Brussels for talks with European and NATO officials, Clinton stressed that she is deeply committed to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as Israel's remaining disputes with its neighbors. She said that at first the Obama administration, much like the Bush administration, would play "a coordinating and facilitating role" in an effort to restart talks. But she suggested that the U.S. role could become much greater if talks progress.
"As it goes forward, many of us will be expressing those opinions and presenting positions for the parties to consider," she said.
Throughout Wednesday, Clinton heaped praise on Abbas, a U.S. favorite whose approval rating appears to be sagging as elections approach next year.
Clinton, meeting with high school students in Ramallah, said that she was impressed by a presentation by Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, at an international donors conference for Gaza held this week. "It was one of the best I've ever seen," she said.
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Jerusalem contributed to this report.