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EU urges Israel to halt plans to build new East Jerusalem neighborhood

Bloc expresses ‘grave concern’ as Israel approves 800 West Bank homes, days before Biden inauguration; Jerusalem urges Europe to focus on Iranian enrichment

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A general view of the Givat Hamatos settlement in east Jerusalem, on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
A general view of the Givat Hamatos settlement in east Jerusalem, on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The European Union expressed its “grave concern” on Tuesday over newly approved plans for hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements and urged Israel to permanently scrap plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Israel approved the construction of almost 800 housing units in West Bank settlements on Sunday, three days before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, as promised last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The move was condemned by European states and the United Nations.

In a meeting with the Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director-General for Europe Anna Azari, representatives of 17 European nations including the UK, Germany, and France on Tuesday condemned the West Bank approvals and also called for Israel to “permanently halt the tendering procedure for Givat HaMatos” in East Jerusalem.

Azari responded that Givat HaMatos is part of Jerusalem, and that treating construction within Israel’s capital as an expansion of settlements is “baseless, to put it diplomatically,” the Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel.

Azari also expressed her disappointment in the tepid reaction of some of her European counterparts to Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 20%.

A Jerusalem court last week halted the auction of 1,257 new units in the Givat HaMatos neighborhood after Palestinians submitted a petition claiming that the manner in which many of the units were being sold discriminated against them.

On Tuesday, however, the court lifted the order, allowing the tender process to proceed, according to the left-wing Ir Amim organization that submitted the petition.

View of caravans in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of Jerusalem, on July 5, 2016. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

A court hearing on Ir Amim’s petition will be held on May 27, the organization said. According to its court filings, 501 units — around forty percent of the Givat HaMatos apartments — are being auctioned off as part of a new Israeli government program that subsidizes cheap housing for young families. But only Israeli citizens are eligible for the program — and East Jerusalem Palestinians are defined as permanent residents, not citizens, under Israeli law.

If built, Givat Hamatos would become the first new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem in two decades. The neighborhood’s location has drawn controversy, with some left-wing groups arguing that it would make a contiguous Palestinian capital in Jerusalem far more difficult to achieve.

The plan for construction in Givat Hamatos was first advanced in 2012, earning widespread condemnation from the international community. It has been postponed repeatedly for nearly eight years.

EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff during a visit to the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

On Sunday, days before Biden was set to take office, the Civil Administration said some 780 homes were okayed in settlements, many of them deep in the West Bank.

In a statement this week, the EU emphasized that its position remains “that settlements are illegal under international law.”

“These moves are also counterproductive in light of the positive developments of normalization agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states,” the statement continued.

Protesters carrying Israeli flags heckle a news conference by European Union officials visiting the construction site for Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Most of the international community considers settlement construction a violation of international law. In November 2019, by contrast, the US State Department said it had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November became the first top American diplomat to visit a settlement in the West Bank.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report. 

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