The Housing Ministry is working on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem valued at more than NIS 330 million ($85 million), the Peace Now organization said Monday, basing its claim on ministry documents it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The vast majority of contracts were signed between March 2013 and May 2015, when Uri Ariel of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party was housing minister. He currently serves as minister of agriculture and rural development.
Peace Now, which campaigns for a negotiated two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, obtained 200 pages of ministry documentation, with tables containing more than 1,000 lines of data, following a legal petition.
The organization claimed in a report Monday that this data and other sources reveal the ministry to be working on plans for 55,548 units in West Bank settlements, half of which are located east of the West Bank security barrier.
The international community regards as illegal all settlements in lands conquered by Israel during the 1967 Six Day war and has backed Palestinian claims that continued construction in these areas presents a major stumbling block to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The documents also confirm “post-facto legalization/approval of at least six illegal outposts,” plans to create new settlements south of Bethlehem and in the northern Jordan Valley (the latter on the site of an illegal outpost established in 2013), projects to expand smaller settlements into bigger towns, and plans for 8,372 units in the E1 area slated to more closely connect Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem and make it harder for any future Palestinian state to establish territorial contiguity, Peace Now said.
Israel’s Housing Minister Yoav Galant on Monday denied any plans to build in E1.
The Peace Now report detailed what it said are efforts to create a buffer ring around Jerusalem, which will seal Palestinian East Jerusalem off from Ramallah in the north — the seat of the Palestinian Authority — and Bethlehem in the south.
It said the ministry has spent more than NIS 2 million ($515,000) on plans for a massive 10,000-unit housing project in Atarot (in northern Jerusalem, between Beit Hanina and Ramallah). If implemented, this would be the first new neighborhood in East Jerusalem since the controversial establishment of Har Homa by Netanyahu in 1997 and would cut Palestinian East Jerusalem off from Ramallah.
A further 2,000 units are planned to connect Har Homa westwards to a neighborhood being planned on the nearby hilltop of Givat Hamatos, cutting Bethlehem off from the city’s southern Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Zafafa and Sharafat, Peace Now said.
An additional 21 units are being planned for the heart of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, near Herod’s Gate, the report claimed.
The Peace Now report further revealed work on detailed plans for the construction of 800 housing units in Givat Eitam, also known as E2, south of Bethlehem. The organization disputed the definition of these units as a neighborhood of the existing settlement of Efrat, saying there is “no real continuity” between the two settlements and asserting that the separation barrier is planned to run between them. If implemented, this would deal a “crushing blow” to the two-state solution, said Peace Now, as it would block Bethlehem to the south and bisect the main highway that connects Bethlehem to the southern West Bank.
Several illegal outposts are due for retroactive legalization, the organization said, among them Bnei Adam, east of Ramallah, created in 2004, where 1,500 units are planned, and Mitzpe Danny, created in 1998 in the name of Danny Frei, who was killed in a Palestinian attack on his home in 1995, where 200 units are planned.
The existing 1,000-unit settlement of Adam, located southeast of Ramallah, will increase sixfold, the report said, while 1,566 units are planned for ultra-Orthodox Beitar Illit and 1,500 for Alon Shvut, both south of Jerusalem. In Givat Ze’ev, 800 housing units are planned to link Givat Ze’ev to Jerusalem and cut off nearby Palestinian towns from Ramallah. Additional units are also planned for Bat Ayin, a flashpoint over the years between Palestinians and extreme right-wing settlers.
Peace Now furthermore claimed that the ministry funded a series of illegal construction projects to the tune of several millions of shekels, despite the state attorney’s explicit instructions not to fund unauthorized projects.
In the outpost settlement of Gvaot, 530,000 shekels ($136,000) were provided to construct a public building, in the absence of an approved plan, it said. Gvaot overlooks the highway from Gush Etzion to Beit Shemesh and the coastal plain and therefore has strategic importance. In August last year, Israel announced plans to appropriate about 1,000 acres of land near Gvaot, close to the spot where three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — had been kidnapped two months previously before being killed. At the time, critics described the move as “a stab in the back” for the Palestinian leadership, while the Etzion settlements council welcomed it, saying it was a prelude to the expansion of the Gvaot settlement.
In Itamar, an NIS 2 million ($ 515,000) contract for the construction of a public building in Itamar was signed in December 2013. Yet plans for parts of Itamar were only approved retroactively in October.
In Eli, a settlement that has no approved development plan at all, public works totaling NIS 3.7 million ($956,000) were funded by the ministry. Similar projects were also funded in the settlements Kochav Ya’acov, Halamish, Shilo, and Tal Menashe, Peace Now said
Meretz leader Zehava Galon called Monday on Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to order the dismantling of the illegal outposts which she described as a “breeding ground for hilltop youth and terror activities,” the daily Maariv reported.