Israel promotes controversial plan for East Jerusalem neighborhood at Old Airport

The Jerusalem City Council’s planning and building committee on Wednesday supported a plan for a new neighborhood that will house tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in an abandoned airport in East Jerusalem. The city’s support marks an early step forward for the proposal, which is to be considered by the District Committee for Planning and Building under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance on 6 December.

The new neighborhood is located on the site of Atarot Airport, sandwiched between the Palestinian neighborhood of Kafr Akab and the Qalandiya refugee camp in the far northwest corner of the city largely outside the West Bank security barrier.

The plan includes the construction of 9,000 housing units over 1,243 dunams (307 acres) of land.

The airport area, which was closed after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, was designated a “Palestinian tourism zone” in former “US Century Plan” by former US President Donald Trump.

Following the approval of the City Panel, the Atarot project will still require several subsequent approvals before the ground can be broken. Promotion of the plan has been stalled for several years due to international pressure.

An Israeli official said the project is in the early stages of planning and that it will likely take years before it comes up for government approval.

“Jerusalem is a living, breathing, growing capital of the state of Israel,” said Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. “The housing project will provide thousands of much-needed housing units.”

Ofer Berkowitz, chairman of the municipal opposition, welcomed the move, calling it a “historic building permit in Jerusalem.”

“There was a huge pessimism at the beginning of the road that we would not be able to create the establishment of the neighborhood, but here it happened today,” he said.

Architects are planning the new neighborhood in the Atarot industrial area in East Jerusalem. (Jerusalem Municipality)

Support for the Atarot project comes as Israel quietly promotes controversial construction projects in and around Jerusalem without making major announcements that could anger the Biden administration. Critics say recent moves, though step by step, are paving the way for rapid growth as the political climate changes.

Last month, a local planning committee in Jerusalem approved the expropriation of public land for the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood, which critics say would largely cut off Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem from the southern West Bank.

The same committee put forward plans for the construction of 470 homes in the existing East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev.

A military body, meanwhile, scheduled meetings to discuss a planned settlement of 3,400 homes on a barren hillside outside Jerusalem known as the E1. Critics say building in the area will effectively separate the northern and southern West Bank, making it impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state along with Israel.

“The fact that all these very controversial plans, which have been long-standing international red lines, have now developed … is very much a sign that the Israeli government intends to promote and ultimately approve these plans,” he said. Amy Cohen from left-wing group Ir Amim last month.

A map showing the controversial Givat HaMatos neighborhood of southern Jerusalem, bordering Gilo and Beit Safafa (Credit: Peace Now)

Israel considers the whole of East Jerusalem as part of its undivided capital and says it should be able to build there at its own discretion. But most of the international community has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and considers Jewish neighborhoods there as settlements.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank, areas Israel conquered in the Middle East War the year the Palestinians want for their future state. The Palestinians consider the settlements and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem – which now house about 700,000 people – as the biggest obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them illegal.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has criticized the construction of settlements as an obstacle to ultimately reviving the long-dying peace process, but has not called for a freeze. In 2010, a statement approving about 1,600 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews in another part of East Jerusalem during a visit by Biden, then vice president, exacerbated a diplomatic rift that flourished during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Buses parked in what was once Jerusalem’s airport at Atarot; in the background the high-rise buildings in the Kafr Aqab district – formally part of Jerusalem, but outside the security barrier, November 2021. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

Biden, who as president prioritizes other challenges such as COVID-19, China and climate change, appears eager to avoid a showdown with Israel, a close US ally.

“We have been clear publicly and privately about where we stand with settlement activity and about annexation,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last month. “We oppose any unilateral move that puts a two-state solution further out of reach.”

Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settlement parties, and its new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is opposed to a Palestinian state. But he is at the forefront of an unmanageable coalition of parties from across the political spectrum – some as opposed to settlements – and appears to be seeking a middle ground that would equate the issue at home and abroad.

The AP contributed to this report.

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