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US Warns Israel on Jerusalem Housing Demolition

The United States warned Israel on Monday that a plan by officials in Jerusalem to demolish Palestinian housing to make way for a tourist center risks violence and could upset peace efforts. The comments came as U.S. officials welcomed Israeli plans to ease the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Officials here are stressing that the plans by the Jerusalem municipality are not final and could be blocked by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

They say they are making clear their hopes that the demolitions do not go forward, stating that such action could upset Mideast peace efforts and counter any goodwill generated by Israel's decision to ease the blockade of Gaza.

City officials in Jerusalem on Monday gave tentative approval to plans for a park and tourist center in mainly-Arab East Jerusalem that would involve the demolition of more than 20 Palestinian homes.

The plan, backed by Jerusalem's right-leaning mayor Nir Barakat was raised earlier this year but apparently set aside at the urging of Mr. Netanyahu.

Previous Israeli demolitions of Palestinian housing in Jerusalem have drawn broad international criticism, including from the United States.

State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that the pending plan could reignite political passions in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their envisaged state.

"This would appear to be the kind of action that undermines trust and potentially incites emotions and adds to the risk of violence. We do understand that there are perhaps different policy approaches between the government of Israel and the municipality in Jerusalem. But our broad thrust here is that issues regarding housing and other projects in the occupied areas of Jerusalem -- it's a final-status issue. That's where these issues belong," he said.

Crowley said any unilateral step by either side is of concern to the United States and should be avoided.

Earlier Monday, the United States and its partners in the international "Quartet" on the Middle East - Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - gave a joint welcome to the Israeli government decision to ease the land blockade of Gaza.

The Israeli cabinet action would greatly expand the scope of goods allowed into the area, controlled by the radical Palestinian Hamas movement.

It came three weeks after a deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza.

The Quartet statement noted that details of the Israeli action are still to be announced, but it said full implementation will be a "significant shift" in Israel's controversial Gaza strategy.

It said the current situation in Gaza, where a very limited number of items are allowed into the coastal strip, is unsustainable, unacceptable and not in the interests of any of those concerned.

The Israeli action was welcomed on Sunday by the White House, which said a Washington visit by Mr. Netanyahu, cancelled in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident, has been rescheduled for July 6.