It was announced on August 4, 2011, that the Israeli Ministry of Interior has given final approval for the large expansion of the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa (Town Plan 13010, for approximately 983 units). The plan provides for an new section of Har Homa, involving construction that is, in its entirety, beyond the existing built-up area of the settlement. It significantly expands the footprint of the settlement into a new area in the direction of Bethlehem/Beit Sahour (onto a hill that is currently covered in trees). This plan changes the potential border between Israel and Palestine in Jerusalem more than any other East Jerusalem plan that has been approved in recent years,and will make a permanent status agreement on Jerusalem incrementally more difficult. A map showing where the newly approved construction will take place can be viewed/downloaded here.
This plan has been advancing through the approval process since November 2010, but has been fast-tracked in recent months, per a March 13, 2011 decision of the Cabinet to “accelerate” certain construction projects. On March 22, the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee established its fast-track subcommittee (Hebrew copy of the resolution can be viewed here). On June 14, this new fast-track planning subcommittee convened for the first time to expedite the construction of a total of 7869 units in Jerusalem. Of these, 4212 units (53.5% of the total) are beyond the Green Line, including the Har Homa plan (a map showing all the East Jerusalem plans that were on the June 14 fast-track agenda can be viewed here; the planning subcommittee’s agenda can be viewed here).
The fact that the Netanyahu government decided to fast-tracking construction in this particular settlement – a settlement that was established by Netanyahu post-Oslo (in his previous term as prime minister), over the strenuous objections of the Palestinians and the international community – is doubtless perceived by the Palestinians as a deliberate provocation. For the Palestinians, Har Homa is the “flagship” of Israeli unilateral actions In East Jerusalem. Finally, as we reported previously, this plan for the expansion of Har Homa previously received approval (one of the last of the interim approvals before final approval could be granted) from the Regional Planning Board on May 19, 2011 – the same day that President Obama delivered a major foreign policy speech and the day before Obama met with Prime Minister Netanyahu. This approval took place with the full advance knowledge and consent of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Indeed, it occurred after the Regional Planning Committee had previously twice delayed consideration of the plan, at the Prime Minister’s direction, apparently in order to avoid causing an “incident” coinciding first with a scheduled meeting of the Quartet and subsequently with Netanyahu's visits to London and Paris. Apparently with respect to this visit to Washington, Netanyahu was not concerned about causing such an incident. The recent acceleration of East Jerusalem settlement schemes, including this latest approval from the Ministry of Interior likewise could not have taken place receiving a green light from the Prime Minister. Given recent noises to the effect that Netanyahu may be preparing to accept a return to negotiations based on the 1967 lines (although with reservations and preconditions that may well render this “concessions” a poison pill for the Palestinians), it seems possible that Netanyahu is once again proving his reputation as a serial recidivist when it comes to Jerusalem. As in, anytime he even appears to be giving anything on the peace process writ large, he feels compelled to offset it with a flagrant provocation in Jerusalem – a provocation that, from the Palestinian perspective, overshadows and effectively cancels out anything positive he may (or, in reality, may not) have offered. This step takes place against the backdrop of two dramatic events that are taking place this summer: the anticipated vote next month at the UN General Assembly, and the mass demonstrations taking place in Israel, calling for “social justice”. The approval of Homa C is pertinent to both.
The UNGA resolution: In its efforts to thwart the UN General Assembly resolution on Palestinian statehood, Israel as been arguing, with a fair measure of success in Washington and European capitals, that the Palestinians must refrain from unilateral actions that prejudge final status issues, and return immediately to negotiations. In approving Har Homa C, Israel appears to be asserting that UN resolutions are "unilateral", while border-altering settlement expansion is not; and that nothing will be more conducive to encouraging the Palestinians to return to talks than the massive expansion of the most sensitive of East Jerusalem settlements.
The mass demonstrations: The settler movement has been largely hostile to the mass protests unfolding in Israel, correctly suspecting that the unbearable burdens placed on the Israeli middle class derive in no small part of the distorted priorities embodied in the massive governmental support of the settler enterprise. But some settlers have been trying to co-opt the protesters message, asserting that the Israeli housing crisis does not derive from settlements, but rather can be “solved” by settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The approval of Har Homa C is a clear indication that the Israeli government will now attempt to deflect the pressures of the protesters by settlement expansion, using the genuine concerns of the Israeli middle class to justify settlement expansion both domestically and in the international community.