An Israeli planning commission advanced 540 new units in a controversial East Jerusalem neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon, in the first Jewish construction in the city’s majority-Palestinian eastern part since the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.
The new housing was approved in Har Homa, a neighborhood near the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher and the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The area — known as Har Homa East — would greatly extend the boundaries of the Jewish neighborhood.
Construction in Har Homa East has been long-promised but long-delayed. The most recent push to build more units in Har Homa began in last February, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on the eve of March 2020 elections that he had lifted restrictions on construction there, sparking controversy.
“Coexistence in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu declared at the time. “Jerusalem is being built and expanded. We are connecting all parts of the united Jerusalem. I have removed all the restrictions, and now Jerusalem is being built under my authority.”
Left-wing and right-wing figures say that Har Homa is significant for the same reason — its potential to create a continuous strip of Jewish neighborhoods in the area. Some left-wing groups argue this could seriously complicate the creation of a potential contiguous Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
The Har Homa extension would effectively join another controversial, planned neighborhood to its northeast — Givat HaMatos — thus separating the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Safafa and Sur Baher from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Newly approved by the local commission, the outline plan for the units is scheduled to be discussed by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee on April 21. If approved, the neighborhood would officially go forward.
According to the left-wing Ir Amim nonprofit, the 540 units in Har Homa East are the first units set to be approved over the Green Line in East Jerusalem since Biden replaced his more settlement-friendly predecessor Donald Trump.
Biden administration officials have said they will urge both Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from unilateral steps, including settlement construction. It is not clear how much pressure the US intends to bring to bear over construction inside Jerusalem, which Trump recognized as Israel’s capital.
“The plan’s advancement is a worrying sign for those who believed that the change in power in the United States would force Israel to restrain settlement construction,” Ir Amim researcher Aviv Tatarsky said in a statement.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem, including neighborhoods captured in the 1967 Six Day War, as its undivided, eternal capital. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and Old City, as the capital of a future state.
The international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, considers East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods to be illegal under international law. Israel disputes this claim, arguing that it has complete sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.
Like the Har Homa extension, Givat Hamatos is also nearing construction. Some 1,257 housing units were auctioned off in January by the state to private contractors, despite a petition by Ir Amim that deemed the auction “discriminatory.”
The plan for construction in Givat Hamatos was first advanced in 2012, earning widespread condemnation from the international community. It was postponed repeatedly for nearly eight years.