An Israeli plan to double the size of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya in the northern West Bank has drawn anger from ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin on Thursday slammed the proposal, saying, “a government of the national camp cannot accept such a reality.”
The plan would see 14,000 new apartments built on 2,500 dunams (617 acres) in Israeli-controlled Area C surrounding the city. It would potentially double the city’s population from 50,000 to 110,000.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement on Wednesday that the plan was “presented by the defense minister last year and approved by the cabinet.” Since that time, it noted, “over 10,000 homes have been approved for planning and construction in the Jewish communities.”
But in a letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Elkin (Likud) argued that the plan did not receive appropriate scrutiny in the cabinet.
“As far as I recall, the plan, to this extent, was never discussed by the cabinet,” Elkin wrote. “Advancing the plan, without an exhaustive discussion by the cabinet, is in my opinion, an attempt by senior ranks of the army to shape a new reality behind the backs of the politicians, and I cannot agree with it.”
The minister called on Netanyahu and Liberman to halt any further development until the cabinet had discussed the proposals.
He said that any Jewish construction in settlements required discussion and approval at the highest level “while at the same time a plan of tens of thousands of housing units for Palestinians in Area C” had been advanced without such scrutiny. This shows “severe discrimination against the needs of Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria,” he added.
The proposed construction will allow homes to be built up to 50 meters (54 yards) from the security barrier, significantly closer than the usual rule banning construction within 200 meters (218 yards).
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, both of the rightist Jewish Home party, said that although they approve of a “carrot and stick” approach towards the Palestinians, “there is no doubt that the plan seems worse compared to the very limited scope of construction approved by the prime minister for Israeli communities,” Channel 2 news reported.
They called on the prime minister to freeze the plan until it had received cabinet approval.
“The government of Israel must advance Israeli interests in Judea and Samaria,” they said, using the biblical name for the West Bank, “not those of the Palestinians. We will demand that the plan be frozen until a renewed cabinet discussion or until 14,000 housing units for Israelis in Area C have been approved.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) called for a parallel increase in Jewish construction.
“Adding thousands of housing units in Qalqilya without serious building in Samaria harms Jewish settlements,” she said in a statement. “The government must commit to [Jewish] building according to the needs of the area. After many long years of a construction freeze, the approved plans are not adequate.”
Fellow Likud lawmaker, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, said the plan should be contingent on the behavior of the Palestinian leadership.
“The Palestinian Authority continues to incite terrorism and harm the security of all Israeli citizens,” he said, Channel 2 reported. “The PA systematically violates all its obligations. Therefore it is appropriate to reevaluate the implementation of the decision to expand Qalqilya.”
According to that same report, Netanyahu said in a closed door meeting that he was puzzled over why cabinet ministers who were involved in the decisions “deny them at the first signs of criticism and pressure.” He said that, “There is not and will never be a government that is more concerned about settlements than this government.”
But settler leaders, challenging the prime minister’s assertion, reacted with outrage to news of the plan.
Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan on Wednesday accused the government of “taking the terror city of Qalqilya, which has produced so many terror attacks, and giving it a gift.”
The approval of 14,000 units, he noted, was “seven times what all four Jewish councils received in all Judea and Samaria.”
Settlers also voiced concern that new construction would come very close the territory of the Tzofim settlement.
“Has this government lost all restraint? Have we gone completely mad?” Dagan said. “You can’t speak in two voices: on the one hand claiming you’re doing everything for the settlements and on the other stopping construction in the settlements while advancing Arab construction.”
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.