Bidding opened on Sunday morning to construct 1,257 units in a controversial planned neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the Israel Lands Authority and the Housing Ministry announced, drawing reproof from the Palestinian Authority and the European Union.
If built, Givat Hamatos would become the first new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem in two decades. The area’s location has raised concerns.
“Givat Hamatos, along with Gilo, will completely surround the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. One day, if there’s a two-state solution and a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, Beit Safafa will be cut off from the rest of East Jerusalem,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at the left-wing Jerusalem nonprofit Ir Amim.
By contrast, the Netanyahu’s government’s coalition whip Miki Zohar (Likud) hailed the development as enabling contiguity between Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods. “This is a neighborhood in a strategic place between Beit Safafa and Hebron Road. The construction here is essential to preserve Jewish contiguity between [the neighborhoods of] Talpiyot and Gilo,” Zohar said.
Tatarsky said the development could also cut off East Jerusalem — which Palestinians seek as their future capital — from Bethlehem to the south. “The new neighborhood would establish facts on the ground such that if a future Israeli government wishes to reach an accord with the Palestinians, it would be very hard to do in a way that maintains territorial contiguity,” Tatarsky said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the move, calling it an attempt by Israel “to kill the internationally supported two-state solution.”
“The occupation government’s continued bidding for new settlement housing units will not change the fact that all settlements are doomed to end,” Abbas said through a spokesperson.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he was “deeply worried” by the development.
“This is a key location between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank,” he said in a statement. “Any settlement construction will cause serious damage to the prospects for a viable and contiguous Palestinian State and, more broadly, to the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution in line with the internationally agreed parameters and with Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.”
The Peace Now settlement watchdog warned that the plans were potentially “a fatal blow to the two-state solution.”
“This catastrophe can still be stopped, and we hope that government officials who still feel a tiny drop of responsibility for our collective future will do whatever they can to drop the bidding,” Peace Now said in a statement.
Right-wing Jerusalem deputy mayor Aryeh King, a longtime activist with the settler organization The Israel Land Fund, praised the decision to build in Givat HaMatos.
“I am very hopeful that this will be the first signs of a thaw in construction in the city’s east, which will lead the rise in housing costs in the city to stop,” he said.
The pro-settlement organization Regavim hailed the development, saying: “Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel, and we’re in favor of the state exercising its sovereignty in its capital.”
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.
“[Givat Hamatos] is contrary to Israel’s stated goal and it would send a very troubling message if they proceed with tenders or construction,” a spokesperson for the administration of former US president Barack Obama said in 2014, adding that the move would “call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in February that he had lifted restrictions on construction there, sparking further 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.”
The international community has roundly condemned previous Israeli efforts to advance construction in the area. France and Germany, along with the European Union and several other member states, all slammed plans to build the neighborhood after Netanyahu’s announcement.
After Netanyahu spoke, the opening of bidding on construction was postponed for another few months until the auction opened on Sunday. It will run until January 18 — only two days before the relatively settlement-friendly administration of US President Donald Trump is replaced by that of President-elect Joe Biden — when the government will announce which contractors won the bidding war.
Zohar, the coalition whip, seemed to imply that Netanyahu was utilizing Trump’s final days in office to pursue the controversial move, with the Biden administration likely to cast a far more baleful gaze upon such construction.
“These days are an opportunity that will not repeat itself to entrench our hold on the Land of Israel. I am certain that President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will work to utilize them in the best way possible,” Zohar said.
According to Tatarsky, of the Ir Amim nonprofit, unless the process is delayed again, construction could start within six months.
“As soon as there is a contract, it becomes a formal economic agreement. It becomes much harder for the government to stop,” Tatarsky noted.