The Israeli Hebrew-language press reported on August 25 (here
) that the Israel Land Authority has awarded tenders for the construction of 708 new units in the settlement of Gilo in East Jerusalem. A map showing the location where these new units will be built can be viewed here.
As can be seen from the map, the new units are, in their entirety, to be located beyond the built-up area of the settlement of Gilo, expanding the footprint of this already massive settlement.
These same tenders have caused havoc in the past. The tenders, issued under Town Plan 13157, were first approved on October 18, 2012, as part of that year’s settlement surge (see our report, here
, and our earlier report on the plan, here
). This is the same Gilo plan that we had reported previously (here
) was one of the plans that Netanyahu had decided to “fast-track” for approval. This is also the same Gilo plan that was in the headlines
in November 2009, when, at almost exactly the same time that then-Special Envoy Mitchell was in London to meet with Netanyahu’s top advisor Yitzhak Molcho, the Regional Planning Committee decided to move forward with approval of the plan (despite a U.S. request to desist
The plan was subsequently granted final approval in August 2013
, immediately after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks – for more, see our report on that approval, here
. The tenders were subsequently issued in November 2013, and reissued on April 1, 2014, the latter contributing to the collapse of talks – and the proximate cause of U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s comment that the talks went “poof” – for more, see our report from that period, here
Was the award of these tenders a political step?
There have been almost no new East Jerusalem-related settlement announcements since the collapse of talks on April 1, and none at all since the outbreak of the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – no plans deposited for public review, no hearings on new plans, no statutory approvals and no new tenders. This absence of settlement-related announcements/approvals is no accident: we are in the midst of a de facto East Jerusalem settlement freeze, something that can only be the case based on Netanyahu's explicit instructions.
Does the awarding of these Gilo tenders mean the freeze is over? No. As we have made clear previously, it is the publication of tenders that is “the Rubicon” of settlement expansion – the point after which construction is for the most part a foregone conclusion. This why even during previous freezes, tenders that had already been published were awarded. In those cases, like this one, the award of the tenders is bad news, but it is neither surprising nor indicative of a new opening of settlement floodgates.
Moreover, it should be noted that the news of the award of these Gilo tenders was not released by someone inside the Israeli government (in contrast to many past settlement-related announcements which were deliberately leaked/spun by Israeli officials for their own political purposes). The award of these tenders came to light only because an industrious reporter dug it up. So it would be wrong to conclude that the Netanyahu government is going ahead with the award of these tenders, at this particular time, to send a political statement, either to the Palestinians or anyone else.
This latter point is important, as the news of the award of the Gilo tenders will undoubtedly be viewed as a political message from the Netanyahu government, regardless of whether or not this is the case. More important, however, is the fact that the award of these tenders is the exception that highlights the rule: there has been an undeclared, de facto settlement freeze in East Jerusalem for the past 5 months, and during this period, there has been virtually no criticism of the freeze being heard from Netanyahu’s traditional Cabinet critics, most notably devout settlement advocates Naftali Bennett and Minister of Construction Uri Ariel, whose ministry is actually implementing the freeze.
What are the implications of the silence over the freeze?
This silence of people like Bennett and Ariel in the face of the East Jerusalem settlement freeze cannot be ascribed to Cabinet unity during difficult times, given that neither Bennett nor Ariel has been averse to publicly criticizing Netanyahu over the conduct of the Gaza campaign.
So what is going on? The likely conclusion is a troubling one: that Netanyahu has promised settler advocates in his Cabinet, and their pro-settlement supporters, “sit tight for now, and I will make it up to you later.” If this conclusion is correct – and we believe it is – then left to his own devices, Netanyahu will likely open up the East Jerusalem settlement floodgates upon the cessation of hostilities in the south.
This conclusion underscores why, as the international community works to find a way to end the Israel-Hamas fighting and regenerate some sort of political process, it is more important than ever that the current Jerusalem settlement freeze – declared or undeclared – be continued.
Failing this, settlement-related developments in Jerusalem will almost certainly condemn any renewed process to an early and preordained demise.
Indeed, following this latest round of fighting, the impact of renewed settlement activities will be even more devastating than in the past. We now know that Hamas has succeeded in getting Netanyahu to freeze Jerusalem settlement expansion - something Netanyahu refused to do for Abbas or for the sake of negotiation. If East Jerusalem settlement construction starts up again, Hamas will be able to say, with reason, "we were able to get a settlement freeze in Jeruslaem through armed resistance, something Abbas was unable to get through negotiations."