In November 2013, the Ministry of Housing published tenders to engage the services of planners in regard to some of the plans discussed below. Under massive international pressure, the tenders were cancelled.
As the result of a Freedom of Information Act request, Peace Now subsequently received documents showing that, rather than giving up on this planning effort, the Ministry of Housing decided to go ahead with it, but in a manner that shielded the effort from any public scrutiny (i.e., without tenders or announcements of any kind).
On December 28, Peace Now issued a detailed and well-documented report explaining how Israel’s Ministry of Housing is engaged in the planning of more than 55,000 new settlement units in the West Bank. The most prominent of the schemes entails additional planning in E-1, and this element of the report has received wide press attention. A second plan dealt with in the documents, A-Nahla/Givat Eitam/E-2 is also particularly noteworthy, as this plan, like E-1, has a direct impact on Jerusalem-related issues. For background on E-1, see here; for background on A-Nahla/Givat Eitam/E-2, see here. In addition, the documents reveal ongoing planning for a number of highly problematic settlement schemes within East Jerusalem. (Map can be viewed/downloaded here).
E-1 & Its Environs
The planning being advanced for the E-1 area breaks down as follows:
- Updating and expanding pending plans for initial construction in E-1. It should be recalled that in January 2013, Israeli planning authorities took a decision to deposit for public review the plan for the construction of 1,500 units; since then no further action has been taken. The documents obtained by Peace Now show that this pending plan is being expanded to more than double the number of units involved, for a total of 3,600 units in the initial tranche of construction.
- Planning for an additional 1,270 units in two sections of E-1, in areas referred to in the planning documents as “E-1 North” and “E-1 South.”
- Delineation of areas for additional settlement construction east of Jerusalem. The documents disclose planning for an additional 3,500 units to the east of Jerusalem, most likely within the boundaries of E-1.
- Planning for 1,000 new settlement units in the Jordan River Valley, of which 200 units are already slated for approval and implementation.
A-Nahla (aka Givat Eitam, aka E-2)
The newly-disclosed documents show ongoing planning for a new settlement called “A-Nahla” or “Givat Eitam” (dubbed by many observers “E-2,” since, like E-1, it would have a devastating impact on the geographical integrity of any future Palestinian state).
In the past, the Ministry of Housing had prepared a conceptual framework plan for the construction of this new settlement. The documents released to Peace Now show that the Ministry has advanced the planning much further: detailed plans have been completed for the construction of the first of 2,500 units in A-Nahla/Givat Eitam/E-2. This planning represents a significant step beyond a conceptual plan towards the approval and implementation of an operational plan.
Elsewhere in East Jerusalem
The documents obtained by Peace Now reveal that in recent years, the Ministry of Housing has engaged in the planning of some highly problematic new settlement schemes inside East Jerusalem:
- a small Jewish settlement at Herod’s Gate, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City;
- a 10,000 unit settlement neighborhood on the site of the Atarot/Qalandia airport;
- a 2,000 unit expansion to the west of the Har Homa (sometimes dubbed Bethlehem Gate), linking to Gilo and the planned construction at Givat Hamatos;
- additional unnamed schemes are being funded and promoted in the settlement enclaves in and around Jerusalem’s Old City.
While all of these plans have been around for quite some time, they are so problematic (for a range of reasons), that their implementation remains highly unlikely. That said, the newly released documents show that the Netanyahu Government has been going ahead and planning them in earnest, some into the present day, at a cost of several million shekels. It should thus be assumed that the intent is to be ready to implement them at some point down the road, when circumstances are viewed as ripe.
Key Questions Raised by these Revelations
Does this new information indicate that Netanyahu has decided to act on E-1?
Probably not. Had Netanyahu decided to proceed with E-1, there is one clear-cut way in which he would do that: publication for public review of the plans for the first 1500 units (opening the door for construction to commence within a year). These plans was approved for such publication in January 2013, and publication could take place at any time – and Netanyahu could claim (disingenuously) that “nothing new” had happened, since the approval took place almost 2 years ago. If Netanyahu were intent on going ahead with E-1, this would be the logical “next step” – and he has not taken it.
Consequently, it would be wrong to conclude that a decision has been taken to proceed with E-1. If such a decision is taken with respect to E-1, it will require formal steps that will serve as a “trip-wire,” giving Israelis and the international community a year or so to object to the plans and to seek to convince the Israeli government to cease and desist.
If this isn’t an indication that Netanyahu has decided to act on E-1, then is the Ministry of Housing going rogue?
Certainly not. It appears that the Ministry of Housing is operating within the rules laid down by the Prime Minister, and consistent with the Prime Minister’s objectives. According to these rules/objectives, approval by the Prime Minister is required for any public step related to the advancement of settlement plans/construction (including decisions to deposit for public review, hearings to consider approval of plans, extension of statutory approval to plans, and issuance of tenders for construction). Anything else related to the advancement of settlement plans, such as a non-binding planning exercise, can go forward, without requiring the Prime Minister’s approval.
This dynamic enables the Prime Minister to enjoy (or demand) the benefits of “not knowing” about settlement-related developments, as he did in November 2013 when then-Minister of Housing Uri Ariel initially published the tenders to engage the services of planners for a previous massive settlement planning exercise. Netanyahu did the same this week, in response to the new Peace Now report. In a statement issued by the office of the Prime Minister, it was argued that the effort to revive and advance plans in E-1 was (once again) the work of then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel, acting on his own. The statement said that Ariel did this “...of his own initiative and without the required authorization…The Ministry of Housing has no authority either to plan or build beyond the Green Line…These plans therefore have no standing and are not binding on anyone.”
A number of observations are in order regarding response:
- There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu’s announcement that there are no immediate plans to proceed on E-1 should not be taken – for now – at face value.
- There is every reason to reject Netanyahu’s defense that he didn’t know about this planning effort (i.e., what has become his standard “I just work here” defense) and to refuse to absolve him of accountability. If Netanyahu didn’t know, it is because he willfully elected not to.
- There is good reason to see the statement as a declaration of intent to go ahead with massive settlement planning. The statement addresses only the issue of E-1 planning. It conspicuously fails to address the revelations of planning for another 47,000-plus units revealed in the documents obtained by Peace Now.
- The limited nature of the statement is especially noteworthy in the context of the previous revelation regarding massive settlement planning which took place in November 2013. In the hours after that story broke, Netanyahu tried to placate an enraged international community by freezing only the E-1 planning. When that failed to fly with the international community, Netanyahu ordered all the planning tenders frozen. This time around he appears, once again, to be attempting to “sacrifice E-1” as cover for allowing the other plans to proceed.
- In November 2013, it took an international firestorm to convince Netanyahu to stop the massive settlement planning effort. This time, Peace Now’s report and quiet interventions have sufficed, but only with respect to E-1. There are lessons to be learned here: (1) even when Netanyahu is in his most defiant, “in-your-face” mode, as he has been in recent months, he is sensitive to international engagement – actual and anticipated – that he perceives as being serious and consequential; and (2) if this lesson is limited to E-1, it will be far from adequate. It is possible to elicit restraint from Netanyahu on settlement issues that go well beyond E-1, but only if the international community signals very clearly that it means business.
So is the settlement planning revealed in these new documents something to worry about?
The settlement planning revealed in the new documents is something both to worry about and to watch closely – and nothing in the statement from the Prime Minister’s office changes that. The potential impact of each individual plan cited in the Peace Now report requires analysis, each on its own merits. Some of these plans are indeed quite dangerous, and require immediate attention.
E-1 & the Jahalin Bedouin
The most dangerous of these is indeed connected to E-1, but not to the construction of the settlement units themselves. A covert campaign is underway to forcibly displace the 2,300 Jahalin Bedouin (and here) who reside within the area designated by Israel for the future construction of E-1. The coercive displacement of a civilian population under occupation is the quintessential war crime. And, indeed, this is an unfolding war crime, but one that has not yet taking place in earnest. Operational planning revealed in the newly public documents to prepare the site in the Jordan Valley to which the Bedouin will be transferred (against their will) brings the implementation of the scheme significantly closer – and there is no indication that Netanyahu or anyone else intends to stop.
This plan rivals E-1 and Givat Hamatos in its devastating impact on the contiguity, viability and geographical integrity of any potential Palestinian state. The fact that the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office in response to the Peace Now’s report was limited to the plans in E-1 further strengthens concerns that absent a strong international response, Netanyahu’s intention is to go ahead with E-2. Until now, the plans for its construction have been preliminary (declaration of state lands) and conceptual (framework plans). The detailed planning of the first 800 units is a serious step towards implementation, even if the formal planning process has yet to begin. It is not clear yet that the world have recognized that this plan is as poisonous to the two-state outcome, and as antithetical to an Israeli commitment to peace, as E-1 and Givat Hamatos – plans that have both been frozen in the face of resolute international objections.
The East Jerusalem Settlement Schemes
The obstacles to the implementation of plans in Atarot and Har Homa West are so daunting (for legal and planning reasons largely unrelated to the settlement issue) that their implementation is highly unlikely under any foreseeable circumstances. The scheme at Herod’s Gate is more achievable, but the current director of the Ministry of Housing has been adamant that work on this scheme is no longer taking place and is not anticipated to resume. This assertion may indeed be credible but requires constant monitoring.
The most dangerous schemes are the ones not specifically mentioned in the newly revealed documents, but are clearly implied: increased efforts to strengthen the settler stranglehold on Wadi Hilweh/City of David, Batan al Hawa/The Yemenite Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and Sheikh Jarrah. The center of gravity of the Jerusalem settlements has moved there and settler efforts in this arena – backed by the Israeli bureaucracy – must be monitored, exposed and more effectively constrained.
Even those plans cited in the Peace Now report that do not appear to entail clear and present dangers require effective engagement – even now, and for the following reasons:
- Tenders for hiring planners were withdrawn two years ago under international pressure. Now, outside of public scrutiny, the planners have been hired and planning is going forward. This is a clear indication that the partial lull in settlement activity is unraveling .
- Settlement plans portrayed “only as plans” are the guns left on the table in the first act that will be fired by the end of the play. A recent example: in 2010, Israeli officials dismissed criticism of the approval of the Ramat Shlomo Plan during the visit to Israel of Vice President Biden, insisting that it was “only a plan.” Tenders for construction of this “only a plan” were published weeks ago.
- A truism that applies to East Jerusalem settlements applies equally to all settlements: There is no such thing as a “window of opportunity” in stopping settlement planning/approvals. When the world objects to settlement approvals, the answer from Israeli officials, invariably, is either, “It’s too early, it’s just a plan – what are you objecting to?” or “It’s too late, this was approved long ago – why are you bothering us now?” In truth, settlement plans can be stopped at almost any point on the road to implementation, and the earlier a plan is stopped, the lower the political costs.
- The Peace Now report illuminates with rare clarity just how sophisticated, powerful, and organizationally coherent the settler regime within the Israeli bureaucracy really is, and how the PM maneuvers between them and between international pressure (actual and potential).