East Jerusalem Settlement Activity & the Onset of the Trump Era: What to Watch

In recent weeks, the main focus of concern regarding Jerusalem has been the question: will President Trump move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? Our in-depth analysis of the implications of such a move is here. In parallel, another highly problematic issue has been at the fore of the Israeli government’s agenda: legislation for the annexation of Maale Adumim, located on East Jerusalem’s northeast periphery. With any move of the embassy and the annexation legislation on hold, at least for the time being, some may now be tempted to drop their guard and become less vigilant. This would be a mistake. For those concerned with Jerusalem – both its security and its role in enabling or obstructing a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the future of the U.S. embassy in Israel and the annexation legislation are by no means the only things to which close attention must be paid.

Based on statements made by Trump and his surrogates both during the campaign and after the election, and based on Trump’s nominations and appointments (most notably of David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, Jason Greenblatt as his Special Representative for International Negotiations, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his chosen representative to broker Israel-Palestinian peace – all of whom have a history of support for settlements), there has long been every reason to expect that Trump’s inauguration would trigger a surge in Israeli settlement activities. And that is precisely what has happened. And, unsurprisingly, these activities are focused in large part on Jerusalem.

First, on January 22nd – less than 48 hours after Trump’s inauguration – the Jerusalem Municipality reportedly voted to approve 566 new settlement units in East Jerusalem (in Pisgat Zeev, Ramat Shlomo and Ramot). The vote on these units had been scheduled to take place in December, but had been postponed (clearly at the behest of Netanyahu) in order to avoid a confrontation with the Obama Administration before it left office. This means that the subsequent approval on January 22 entailed Netanyahu’s knowledge and consent.

Shortly thereafter, also on January 22nd, in a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to remove building restrictions in East Jerusalem and expand construction in settlement blocs (the contours/borders of which he did not define).

This focus on Jerusalem settlements should come as no surprise. Netanyahu has a long and famously contentious track with respect to East Jerusalem, characterized by what seems to be an irresistible impulse to favor East Jerusalem settlement expansion as a means of “balancing out” anything he does that can be seen as remotely conciliatory toward the Palestinians. For example, the settlements of Ras el Amud and Har Homa were “payback” for reaching the Hebron and Wye River Plantation agreements, respectively. Consequently, the deferral of both the moving of the Embassy and the annexation legislation, combined with a Netanyahu who is increasingly vulnerable domestically, all make a settlement surge focused on East Jerusalem significantly more likely.

In this context, it is critical to examine the pending and likely plans for settlement activity in and immediately around East Jerusalem, and to hone in on the specific locations/projects of greatest concern.

Large-Scale Projects: Givat Hamatos, E-1, & E-2
Expansion of Existing Settlement Neighborhoods
Expansion of Settlement Enclaves in Palestinian Neighborhoods
Theoretical Plans “Announced” for Dramatic Effect
The Unknown/Unexpected

Large-Scale Projects: Givat Hamatos, E-1, & E-2

Large-scale, government-sponsored projects have for decades formed the backbone of the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem. Huge amounts of government funding have been invested since 1967 to establish large settlements and settlement blocs strategically in and around East Jerusalem, with the goal of preventing contiguity between the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and preventing any future division of East and West Jerusalem.  As a result, settlements today make any future two-state agreement in and around Jerusalem extremely difficult. And likewise, as a result, there is not much land left in and around East Jerusalem today for major settlement projects.

However, the three exceptions – Givat Hamatos, E-1, and E-2 – are critical, each project in its own way posing a dire threat to the two-state solution.  As such, these projects will serve as a critical test – both of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s readiness and ability to stand up to the settlers’ now that he cannot shift blame for putting off new construction to the Obama Administration, and of the extent to which President Trump will or will not throw out longstanding U.S. policy and throw America’s support behind the settlement movement.

Givat Hamatos:  Givat Hamatos is a new East Jerusalem settlement planned for a site located between the existing East Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Gilo and the West Bank city of Bethlehem (full background on the plan is here.

Key facts about implementation of the Givat Hamatos plan are the following:

  • Givat Hamatos is the last major settlement project planned for East Jerusalem (over the years all others have been implemented, notwithstanding international objections).
  • The construction of Givat Hamatos is planned, sponsored and implemented by the Government primarily on “state land” or land privately owned by Israelis, and includes massive government-constructed associated infrastructure work. There is also a small amount of land within the Givat Hamatos plan that is privately owned by Palestinians and a number of churches, but this is not an obstacle to establishment of a new Israeli settlement neighborhood there.
  • The first stage of Givat Hamatos plan would allow for the construction of 4500 units, the overwhelming majority of which would be for Israeli Jews, with a smattering of property that would be allotted for Palestinian landowners.
  • Plans for construction in Givat Hamatos have been fully approved but tenders have not yet been issued – making it the ONLY settlement area within Jerusalem’s municipal borders were significant tenders are possible but have not yet been published.
  • In the summer of 2014, Netanyahu was about to publish tenders for the construction of 1500 units in Givat Hamatos in retaliation for the murder of the three yeshiva students in West Bank, but pulled back at the very last moment. Those tenders are ready for publication on a day’s notice.
  • Given strong Government support for Givat Hamatos, and given the departure of the Obama Administration, issuance of tenders and the commencement of construction could take place in short order.

Key implications of building Givat Hamatos are the following:

  • If plans to build Givat Hamatos are implemented, this will be the first new Israeli settlement neighborhood established by the government in East Jerusalem since construction commenced at Har Homa in the late 1990s.
  • If Givat Hamatos is built, it will result – for the first time since 1967 – in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem being completely surrounded by Israeli construction. This would have dire implications for the possibility of any peace agreement. It is still possible today to implement an agreement based on the principle that Arab neighborhoods of the city will fall under Palestinian sovereignty, and Jewish neighborhoods under Israel sovereignty. If Givat Hamatos is built, it will no longer be possible to implement an agreement along these lines without the relocation of tens of thousands of Israelis.
  • In short, Givat Hamatos is not just another detrimental settlement; it is a game-changer. While it is a smaller project, its implications are no less problematic than those of E-1 (discussed below) – something very much recognized by the Palestinians. The key difference is this: while global opposition has been rallied against E-1, far less attention and opposition has been devoted to Givat Hamatos. Most importantly, with E-1 there is a tripwire. Should Netanyahu decide to proceed on E-1, there will be up to a year to stop him. With Givat Hamatos there will be no warning, and the damage will be mostly immediate.
  • For these reasons, anyone who is concerned about keeping the two-state solution alive in Jerusalem should keep a close eye on Givat Hamatos. The time to “wait and see” or entertain Israeli official excuses about this plan is long past. Arguments that “it is just a plan” or “it is years from implementation” should never have been taken seriously, least of all with respect to a plan that is literally on the verge of implementation. Likewise, arguments that this plan is non-controversial deserve to be ridiculed.

E-1: E-1 is a major West Bank settlement planned for a large area of land on East Jerusalem’s northeastern flank (outside the city’s municipal borders). E-1 is designed to complete the settlement “buffer” around East Jerusalem, cementing a contiguous block of settlements from Maale Adumim to the city’s east, through Neve Yaacov and Pisgat Zeev to the north, and extending to Givat Zeev, to the northwest (a map can be viewed/downloaded here).

Key facts about implementation of the E-1 plan are the following:

  • The Master Plan for E-1 was approved in the 1990’s, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. In 2005, specific plans were approved by the Maale Adumim Municipality. These specific plans provide for the construction of high rise dwellings, low-density residential units, and the police station in E-1.However, following direct intervention by then-U.S. President George W. Bush, then-Prime Minister Sharon agreed to remove all of the residential units from the plans.
  • Every US President since President Clinton has elicited a commitment from every Israeli Prime Minster, including Netanyahu, not to act on E-1.
  • In 2012, in retaliation for the extension of non-member status to the Palestinians in the UN, Netanyahu violated that commitment. He announced that the plan would move ahead and instructed the High Planning Committee of the West Bank to deposit the plans for public review. Such publication would have started a process for final approval by publishing the plan for public review (the entire process taking 9 months to a year), after which tenders could be published, permits issued, and construction commence. However, Netanyahu balked, and the plan was never published.
  • Implementation of E-1 depends today solely on Netanyahu giving the green light for the publication of the plans, which he halted in2012. Once he does, the clock will start ticking toward construction, involving up to a year between the resumption of planning and the publication of tenders for construction.
  • The main obstacle preventing a green light for E-1 has, until now, been wall-to-wall opposition from the international community, led by the United States (dating back to the era of President Clinton).
  • Notably, since 2005, continuing through the present day, the government of Israel has been methodically preparing to implement E-1. Construction (based on the approved Master Plan) has been completed on much of the infrastructure of E-1, including a six-lane road, large interchanges linking a non-existent neighborhood to the national road grid, electricity, lighting, water, drainage, and terracing (indeed, more streetlights have been installed in E-1 than in all of East Jerusalem). Moreover, the Israeli government is engaged in efforts to clear the area connecting Maale Adumim and E-1 of Bedouins who have lived there since the 1950s, including systematically destroying their property (for more see hereand here). The government has also prepared a plan (similar to the Prawer plan for the Negev) to forcibly relocate these Bedouin communities, as part of its effort to prepare the ground for E-1’s construction.
  • What will happen now with E-1 may be linked, in large part, to pending legislation in the Knesset seeking to annex Maale Adumim (a vote on which was scheduled for January 22, but was postponedat the request of Netanyahu)? This bill could have a direct impact on E-1 for two reasons. First, because the bill by definition includes E-1, since E-1 is technically located within the municipal boundaries of Maale Adumim. Second, because if Netanyahu moves to block the bill based on his analysis that it would be “too much, too soon” to ask of the Trump Administration, he may be tempted to “compensate” the Jewish Home party (which initiated the annexation bill) by advancing E-1. For background on the bill see here and here.

Key implications of building E-1 are the following:

  • If built, E-1 would – by design – dismember a potential future Palestinian state into two non-contiguous cantons and seal off East Jerusalem from its environs in the West Bank.
  • Some argue that E-1 doesn’t actually bisect a future Palestinian state, because a series of tunnels and bridges could be constructed that together create an efficient version of “transportational continuity” between the northern and southern West Bank.  Indeed, a sealed road, like the autobahn to Berlin pre-1989, already exists through the E-1 area for Palestinians, whose “state” under this formula would be exactly 16 yards wide.
  • But this “solution” is dependent on the goodwill of Israel (which can close off the road anytime), and in no way compensates for the kind of territorial contiguity which is necessary for a cohesive, viable state in which the fabric of life – political and economic activity and things like education and health services – functions normally.
  • Indeed, under such arrangements, travel from East Jerusalem to Ramallah would be possible only through the Israeli crossing at Qalandia – which already is tantamount to an international border.  From the southern West Bank, it would require travel through the goat paths of Azzariya (the treacherous Wadi Nar road), to the sealed road through E-1.
  • Moreover, neither of these Rube Goldberg-like solutions addresses the problem of cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and it is simply a fact that there will be no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that doesn’t establish a viable capital for the state of Palestine in East Jerusalem.
  • For further maps and analysis, see our presentation, “The Imminent Demise of the Two-State Solution;” slides 21-23 focus on E-1 and its impact.

E-2 (aka, a-Nahla, aka Givat Eitam):  The plan for new West Bank settlement construction deals with an area located east of the settlement of Efrat and southeast of Bethlehem. While this plan is well outside the municipal borders of Jerusalem, its potential impact with respect to Jerusalem and the two-state solution is enormous, akin to that of the construction of E-1 on Jerusalem’s northeastern flank (this is why it is being called “E-2”).

Key facts about implementation of the E-2 are the following:

  • Planning has not started yet and therefore the potential dangerous impact of this project is still, unlike E-1 or Givat Hamatos, more theoretical than practical.
  • However, given Netanyahu’s recent statement indicating a readiness to open the settlement floodgates to a degree not seen over the past 8 years, advancement of E-2 has become a much more real possibility.

Key implications of building E-2 are the following:

  • As we have noted previously (hereand here), this plan, if implemented, would significantly prejudge the border between Israel and Palestine. It would also contribute to the urban suffocation of Bethlehem, preventing one of the few remaining areas in which Bethlehem can develop. And, in conjunction with other existing and planned settlements, it would dismember the southern West Bank in a manner similar to the way E-1 would divide the northern and southern halves of the West Bank.
  • For more details on E-2 – the history of the plan, its path through the Israeli legal system, and its implications on the ground, see these reports from Peace Now.

Expansion of Existing Settlement Neighborhoods

Smaller-scale construction continues in settlements throughout East Jerusalem. While there do not appear to be any significant new plans in East Jerusalem that are pending or proceeding towards approval (with the exception of those discussed above), we will likely witness new settlement approvals and construction through the issuance of building permits and the publication of residual tenders in areas already approved for construction. The most important settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem in which there are construction permits that are pending are Mordot Gilo and Ramat Shlomo (others are also discussed below). Some of this construction is on the edges of the current outline of settlements, in effect “welding” settlement neighborhoods to adjacent Palestinian areas, and thereby making the creation of a viable border in East Jerusalem more difficult.

Mordot Gilo: Two plans for expansion of Mordot Gilo are currently being implemented or are in their final stages prior to construction: Mordot Gilo West (Town Plan 11357) and Mordot Gilo South (Town Plan 175505).

  • Mordot Gilo West has been fully approved and tenders have been issued and awarded for approximately 708 units. Building permits are already being granted.
  • Mordot Gilo South has also been fully approved. However, since this is a plan involving mainly privately-owned property (as opposed to State Land), no tenders are required. Building permits could be issued at any time; we will only know about them when the application for a permit is made to the Jerusalem Municipality (at which point issuance is a forgone conclusion).
  • These plans will expand the current footprint of the settlement of Gilo, to the west in the direction of Beit Jala and to the south, past the limits of the lands expropriated by Israel in August 1970.
  • For full background on Mordot Gilo West, see here. For background on Mordot Gilo South, see hereand here.

Ramat Shlomo: There are two pending plans in Ramat Shlomo; in one case construction is imminent, in the other, we are in the early stage of statutory planning.

  • Building permits are already being granted to start construction on approximately 1500 units in Ramat Shlomo, under Town Plan 11085 (dubbed “the Biden Plan,” since it was published during the 2010 visit of Vice President Biden) on the southern and western flanks of the neighborhood. We are already witnessing the issuance of building permits inside this plan.
  • On December 28, 2016, the Jerusalem Planning Committee was scheduled to grant building permits for 174 units under that same plan. At the last minute that plan was removedfrom the Committee’s agenda and the vote postponed, as Secretary of State John Kerry was set to deliver his Israel-Palestine speech later that same day.
  • The announcement made on January 22, 2017 of the approval of 566 units (in Pisgat Zeev Ramat Shlomo and Ramot) in all likelihood includes these 174 units (specific information about the approved units has not yet been published).
  • An additional plan, Town Plan 11094, providing for expansion on the northeastern flank of Ramat Shlomo, has begun to work its way through the statutory planning process. It is comprised of privately owned land (including land owned by Palestinians). The plan, which would ultimately allow for the construction of an additional 500 units, was approved on November 23, 2016. It is set to go to the Regional Planning Committee to be deposited for public review.

Ramot: The December 28, 2016 session of the Jerusalem Planning Committee was also set to approve 216 units in Ramot. These units are also likely to be among the permits granted on January 22, 2017.
In all likelihood, most of these permits are located on the western flank of Ramot, in the area dubbed the Ramot Country Club, and are governed by Town Plan 6576; some may also be for construction within the contours of the existing neighborhood, under Town Plan 4820B.

Expansion of Settlement Enclaves in Palestinian Neighborhoods

The government of Israel consistently denies that it has any authority over or responsibility for the establishment of settlement enclaves in Palestinian neighborhoods, since such enclaves are the result of “private” purchases and construction. The reality is that none of the settler activities that have taken place since 1967 in Palestinian neighborhoods – including the surge in such activities in the past decade that have focused on Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan – would have been possible without the systematic backing of the government.

Settler organizations and entrepreneurs will no doubt feel encouraged and emboldened by the rise of Trump and by Netanyahu’s declaration in support of East Jerusalem settlement expansion, and will likely seek to capitalize on this new era to move even more aggressively in these (and possibly other) neighborhoods.

Three areas are likely to continue to be the target of settler activities in Palestinian neighborhoods:

  • Silwan (Batan al Hawah)
  • The Old City’s Muslim Quarter
  • Sheikh Jarrah

For background on the legal tools used by settlers to seize properties in these neighborhoods, see our report on the State Comptroller Report on Elad and on Silwan. For more on Sheikh Jarrah settlement activities, see here. For more on Batan al Hawah, see here.

Theoretical Plans “Announced” for Dramatic Effect

In addition to the plans outlined above, there are number of plans that have emerged in recent years that have remained in the realm of concept, with no concrete steps having been taken to launch the approval process. With most of these plans, the objective obstacles to their implementation are so daunting that the chances of them ever being implemented are remote, if not impossible. Other plans, that could possibly become real one day (such as the one near Herod’s Gate in the Old City), are many years away from potential approval. That said, in some of these cases,  the Ministry of Construction and Housing has done some feasibility studies.

In the few days since the onset of the Trump administration, the settler right has been euphoric, and they are in a rhetorical “feeding frenzy”. We deem it highly likely that some of these schemes will be “announced” – perhaps by the Jerusalem Municipality which, under Barkat, has a penchant for such drama – even if the announcement is entirely for effect. However, such announcements can be as inflammatory as moves that seriously move us forward towards the implementation of real plans. They should therefore be taken seriously. The plans on which we may expect such announcements are: Atarot (at the Qalandia Airport); Khirbet Mazmoriya; Herod’s Gate (a settlement enclave in the Muslim Quarter); Bethlehem Gate and Har Homa West near Har Homa; Ahuzat Nof Gilo and Gilo South, adjacent to Gilo; and Givat Yael, near Walajeh.

It is noteworthy that the Minister of Construction and Housing, Yoav Galant, has in the past prevented the advancement of these schemes (as in the case of Herod’s Gate), and should be engaged should the circumstances arise.

The Unknown/Unexpected

As matters now stand, for the first time in fifty years, an Israeli Prime Minister who supports settlement expansion will be able to make decisions unfettered by the engagement of the United States. We have done our best to identify and prioritize those settlement schemes most likely to proceed. We are however, in uncharted waters.

There will be surprises. Be prepared.