Last week, there were press reports concerning a new plan for the construction of large-scale construction in East Jerusalem, near the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as part of an expansion of the settlement of Gilo.

These press reports detail a private sector initiative, being promoted by Israeli developers, under a town plan drawn up by a prominent Israeli architect, which was dubbed in the past “Ahuzat Nof Gilo.” The plan comprises 2,500 new units to be constructed between the southeastern edge of Gilo and the tunnel road that leads to the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank (map). This new construction would extend beyond the existing contours of the Gilo settlement and beyond the expropriation line that made the construction of the settlement possible.

TJ reported on this plan back in June 2012.  Based on the reports published in the Israeli media, it appears that nothing has changed since that time, indicating that there has been little progress in advancing the plan, and no developments whatsoever in the formal statutory planning process. Nonetheless, the reemergence of the plan at this time is troubling. The following background in necessary to understand both the context in which this plan is unfolding, and its potential impact.

Some brief history/context

1967-1995: Following the 1967 War, Israel annexed Jordanian East Jerusalem and large adjacent areas to Israel and made them part of expanded Israeli Jerusalem. In the years that followed, Israel expropriated more than 35% of the privately owned land in these annexed areas, largely for the purposes of constructing large settlement neighborhoods (including Gilo, Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaacov, and Ramot Shlomo). Collectively, Israel has built (to date) around 55,000 residential units for the Israeli sector in these neighborhoods.

1995-2016: In 1995, Prime Minister Rabin promised the United States that Israel would carry out no additional expropriations for settlement construction. Successive Israel governments have honored Rabin’s commitment (with respect to East Jerusalem; not with respect to the West Bank). They have done so, partially based on that undertaking and  in part because most of the available undeveloped land in East Jerusalem had already been expropriated by 1995, leaving ample space for settlement expansion to continue without new expropriations (most notably in places like Ramat Shlomo, Har Homa, and Gilo).

2010-present: In recent years, the situation has changed: The settlement surge of the past decade in East Jerusalem has exhausted most of the construction potential on previously expropriated Palestinian lands. This means not only that Israel has virtually run out of land already under its control on which to build settlements, but also that little undeveloped land is left in East Jerusalem that is suitable for large-scale construction, period.  This is where the Gilo plan comes into play: the large swath of land in question represents one of the last remaining undeveloped large areas in East Jerusalem.

Past settlement attempts

It should surprise no one that this area has been the target of settlement schemes for many years.

Most notably, in 2004, the Sharon Government covertly adopted a resolution that would have allowed the Israeli Government to use Israel’s Absentee Property Law to seize lands in this area – based on the argument that the lands’ owners – residents of Bethlehem who never went anywhere but who, following the construction of the separation barrier (decades post-1967), suddenly found themselves denied access to their own lands – are legally absentees. By invoking the Absentee Property Law, the secret resolution would have allowed Israel to circumvent the undertaking to refrain from “expropriations.” Following our exposure of this scheme, the Attorney General ruled it illegal (for details, see this report, page 54) and the plans to build in the area were returned to the planning files.

In 2008, settler firebrand Aryeh King announced he would greet President Bush on his visit to Jerusalem by setting up a new settlement in this area. His plans never materialized.

What’s different now?

All of the large settlement neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem to-date have been built on “state land” – that is, land expropriated by Israel, making the government of Israel by definition the sole legal “owner” (at least, in the eyes of Israel’s own justice system). Thus, ownership of the land has never been a problem for Israel when it comes to settlement construction in these areas. However, this consistent practice is on the verge of changing, with two exceptions on the brink of implementation – and with the back-in-the-news massive Gilo plan representing a possible third.

The first exception is Givat Hamatos. The lands on which Givat Hamatos will be built (if it is built) were not expropriated by Israel and the lands are owned by various churches, private Palestinian owner, the Custodian of Absentee Property and private Israeli developers. Consequently, the planning process – which involved a complex and controversial reparcelization process – has taken 25 years, and construction has still not commenced.

The second exception is Mordot Gilo South, located to the north of the area being discussed in the new Gilo plan. This settlement neighborhood is also being planned for an area beyond the built-up area of Gilo. At this time, issues of land ownership are being dealt with in framework of a reparcelization scheme.

The Ahuzat Nof Gilo plan, if it goes forward, will be the third exception – bearing in mind the fact that the issues involved in the development of Ahuzat Nof Gilo are even more daunting. First, as in Givat Hamatos there is a mélange of ownerships – private Palestinian owners from both Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, absentee properties, Israeli developers and likely a scattering of church lands. And second, because, unlike the two previous schemes, which were initiated by the Israel Land Authority, this plan is being promoted entirely by private developers who own only a portion of the lands in question. The scheme has not significantly advanced, much less come to fruition, because the objective obstacles are daunting indeed.

Why does it deserve our attention?

In spite of the fact that this plan does not appear to have advanced significantly, there are a number of factors in play that warrant monitoring it vigilantly:

  • Bibi may well get on board. Prime Minister Netanyahu has a propensity for supporting private plans (like this one). He apparently believes that such plans are a win-win for him: they let him advance the settlers’ agenda while giving him deniability vis-à-vis the international community. That is, he believes he can convince the international community that plans like this can advance without direct government involvement and therefore he cannot be blamed or held accountable. Given Netanyahu’s track record, there is good reason to be concerned that he will be tempted to “look the other way” while the project is advanced, especially if he does not feel serious pressure from the international community to prevent it from materializing.
  • The municipality is already on board. Municipality officials reportedly gave their  blessing for the project’s sponsors to advance the planning process and the deputy mayor reportedly said that when the plan is completed and submitted, the Municipality will approve it.
  • Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is certain to get on board. Barkat aspires openly to higher office and is preparing for primaries in the Likud. Needing to make inroads into the Likud’s pro-settlement base, this project is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that he is advancing settlement expansion in Jerusalem – even more than the prime minister himself (who, as noted above, may well get on board but will publicly still claim deniability).
  • The developers seem confident. One of the developers involved in the scheme has already started marketing the project to potential customers on its website, a clear indication that the developers have reason to believe that there will be significant progress towards implementation in the near future.

What happens next?

Next step requires the developers to file a Town Planning scheme with the Jerusalem Municipality. Once filed, the Municipality can be expected to approve it very quickly, sending it to the District Planning Committee of the Ministry of Interior to be deposited for public review.

What are the implications for the two-state solution?

However unlikely its implementation, this is by no means a routine settlement scheme. If this plan materializes, its potential impact would be devastating. Like the Givat Hamatos plan to the north, it has grave implications for the very possibility of creating a two-state border in Jerusalem.

Indeed, both of these schemes involve two similar threats. Firstly, each contributes to sealing the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa and severing any potential link with Bethlehem. In doing so, they make the implementation of the Clinton Parameters, under which Palestinian areas are to come under Palestinian sovereignty, impossible. Secondly, each of these, together with Har Homa and Gilo, in effect create a physical, populated buffer isolating East Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the southern West Bank (map).

Consequently, the Ahuzat Nof Gilo plan should be viewed as harmful ways similar to Givat Hamatos – and should be recognized as bearing important similarities to E-1 and E-2 – and treated accordingly.