On June 15, the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee approved a building permit for the construction by Israeli settlers of a 4-story building located in the section of Silwan known as Batan al-Hawa (map). The decision of the Committee to now approve the building permit was made without giving an opportunity to Palestinian residents to voice their opposition to the plan. Accordingly, the residents plan to appeal the decision of the committee – meaning that this story is still not over.
The Batan al-Hawa plan first came into the public eye in August 2015, generating significant controversy. The land on which the building is to be built was sold in 2005 by the Israeli General Custodian to Ateret Cohanim, without a tender. As reported last month by TJ (here), the Committee was set to approve the Batan al-Hawa permit on June 1, but the process was stopped after intervention by the Netanyahu government. That intervention most likely reflected the government’s concern that approval of the permit at that time would have provoked a harsh international reaction.
Two weeks later, it seems that the government’s calculus changed.
The government’s decision to stand aside and allow the Committee to move forward with the approval process reflects some key realities about the government and settler activities in the heart of East Jerusalem:
1. The Government’s complicity is undeniable: The government’s complicity in and responsibility for the settlers’ activity in the settlers’ activities, and its backing for their agenda in East Jerusalem, is clear and undeniable. As we wrote previously, “denial of Government of Israel complicity in all this can only be described as false innocence. What is happening today is the forceful displacement of an indigenous population under the auspices of the government.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu not long ago argued that settler initiatives in Silwan were merely private real estate transactions and that opposing them would be “un-American.” That claim was disingenuous in the extreme, given that none of the purchases in question could have taken place without the massive support of Government of Israel, whether materially or by means of the government-funded para-military presence by which these settlements houses are secured. The case of Batan al-Hawa is even more blatant, as this project could not have proceeded, at any level, without active collusion between the Custodian General and the settlers. This collusion starts with the land itself – provided to the settlers by the government without tender or oversight, and consistent with a policy of actively transferring control over land in targeted areas from the Palestinians to the settlers.
This collusion continues through the plan’s approval process. As demonstrated earlier this month, when the government wants to prevent a settler plan in East Jerusalem from going forward, it has the power to stop the approval process. This underscores the fact that this plan – and other settler initiatives in East Jerusalem – cannot proceed without the tacit and/or active support of the government. And this collusion extends to the initiative itself, reflected in the fact that the approved building permit includes a sub-permit (No. 2015/447.00), which will allow for expanding the road between the illegal settlement complex of Beit Yonatan and the new planned settler building. This sub-permit was filed by Moshe Merhavia, Director of the Jerusalem District of the Ministry of Construction (himself a settler and one of the major patrons of the settlers in East Jerusalem), in coordination with the Jerusalem Municipality. As we wrote previously: “The fact that the Government of Israel and the settlers have filed a joint request for a building permit incontrovertibly demonstrates just how blurred the distinction between the government and the settlers has become: the settler DNA now informs governmental decision-making, and the governmental authorities have been outsourced to the settlers.”
2. Israeli authorities continue to prioritization settlements over all else (including security): The government’s decision to allow the Batan al-Hawa plan to move forward discloses the extent to which Israeli authorities serve the interests of an extremist ideological minority. The establishment of a new settlement enclave in Batan al-Hawa will generate serious international criticism, fuel European allies’ frustration with Israel, and feed efforts like the BDS movement.
At a time when Jerusalem has been facing an extended period of the worst violence since 1967, this decision will likewise stoke anger and fuel conflict in one of the most volatile areas of the city. It in effect shoves in the faces of Palestinian residents the following facts:
- If settlers decide they covet a specific piece of Palestinian property, Israeli authorities see their role as finding a way to transfer that property to those Israelis, and they will likely succeed.
- Israeli authorities view Palestinian needs in East Jerusalem in general, and areas targeted by the settlers in particular, as at best irrelevant – permits and planning are facilitated and expedited for settlers while remaining virtually non-existent for the Palestinian sector; any land in these areas that is held under the authority of the State is used exclusively for the benefit of settlers, never for the benefit of local Palestinian residents.
- Even as Israeli authorities actively look for pretexts to seize targeted Palestinian properties and to demolish Palestinian construction for lack of permits (which are virtually impossible to obtain), these same authorities refuse to impose the rule of law against the settlers, most notably with respect to Beit Yonatan, a large, illegally-constructed settler building located adjacent to the new planned settler construction in Batan al-Hawa. The fact that Ateret Cohanim was ordered by the court and by the Israel Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to evacuate and seal Beit Yonatan, located just in front of the plots in question, is just another sign that Israeli democracy in Silwan is only there to serve the settlement enterprise.
- The Effort to Cement a One-Capital, One-State Future continues: The Batan al-Hawa approval is just the latest step in the longstanding effort of the government and the settlers to create contiguity between isolated settlement enclaves established inside Palestinian neighborhoods southeast of the Old City (Wadi Hilwe, the City of David, the settlements located in Batan al-Hawa; Maale Zeitim and Maale David in Ras Al-Amud). In the past year and a half, this effort has accelerated and today threatens the fabric of these Palestinian neighborhoods. This Hebron-ization of the city is marked by increased security presence to secure the settlers and fuel the type of tensions and frustrations that led to violence seen in the city starting in Fall 2015. By encircling the Old City, the settlement project is slowly transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a political conflict, which can be resolved through diplomacy and a two-state solution, into a religious conflict that has no solution.