JERUSALEM: A municipal planning committee on Wednesday advanced a plan to build a Jewish seminary in the heart of an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem, triggering angry Palestinian accusations that Israel was undermining already troubled Mideast peace efforts.
The move came amid deadlocked negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over the outlines of a final peace deal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is mediating, is expected to present his vision for a proposed agreement in the coming weeks.
The fate of east Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in the peace efforts. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state. Israel considers east Jerusalem to be part of its capital and says it will never relinquish control of the area and its sensitive religious sites.
In Wednesday's vote, the city planning council gave preliminary approval for a nine-story Jewish seminary in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Brachie Sprung, a Jerusalem municipality spokeswoman, said the vote was only a recommendation to build the seminary, and that the project needed more approvals before it can be built.
But in east Jerusalem, even discussions about changing the sensitive landscape can set off tensions. Nimr Hamad, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the move "a new obstacle on the road to peace and a new obstacle in front of Mr. John Kerry's mission."
"This also proves that the Israeli government indeed flouts the position of the international community and the international public opinion, thinking they can impose facts on the ground," he added.
In addition to east Jerusalem, the Palestinians also seek the adjacent West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for their state. They say that continued Israeli settlement construction is a sign of bad faith that makes it increasingly difficult to partition the land. More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The international community opposes settlement construction, and Kerry has said it raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace. Despite the criticism, Israel has announced plans to build thousands of new settlement homes since peace talks resumed last July.
Pepe Alalo, a member of the planning committee, said the seminary project had been delayed when Kerry was in the region to advance peace talks. He said he voted against the plan, calling it a "provocation."
Kerry has set an April target date for reaching the outlines of a peace deal. With few signs of progress so far, the Palestinians have threatened to resume their campaign seeking recognition of their independence. In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly recognized Palestine as a nonmember state, opening the way for them to seek membership in dozens of international organizations.
Israel opposes the campaign, calling it an attempt to bypass peace talks.
On Wednesday, the Israeli army said it has turned away Gazan medical patients seeking treatment outside their territory because referral letters were marked "State of Palestine," a status Israel does not recognize.
The Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government in the West Bank, uses "State of Palestine" on most stationery, but not in correspondence with Israeli authorities.
Maj. Guy Inbar, a military official, said Wednesday that about 70 patients from the Gaza Strip submitted requests this week to enter Israel for treatment and were turned down. He says Israel only handles paperwork marked "Palestinian Authority."
It was unclear if the standoff over the patients stemmed from a clerical error or a change in Palestinian policy.