Contractor Haim Zaken still has nothing in writing that would allow him to actually build in the Beitar Illit settlement, even though Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s verbal nod for the project angered Palestinians on Monday.
In the midst of a renewed push to jump-start the peace process, the Defense Ministry announced that work could continue on 112 apartment units in Beitar Illit that had been frozen as a result of the 10-month moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction.
But for Zaken, it’s all hearsay.
“I haven’t seen any official document,” Zaken told The Jerusalem Post
, adding that he still could not send a construction crew out into the field at this stage.
Many of his 68 apartments are part of the 112-unit project, which was given a stop work order at the end of November when the cabinet imposed the moratorium.
Last Wednesday, the Defense Ministry’s Exemptions Committee, which hears appeals from contractors and homeowners whose projects have been frozen, granted his appeal and said he could continue to build. The Civil Administration then notified the Beitar Illit Municipality, which in turn spoke with Zaken on Thursday.
A ministry source said the US had also been notified, but the source did not clarify when or how.
The decision to exempt the 112 Beitar Illit units from the overall West Bank freeze on new construction was publicized only on Monday morning by Army Radio. The story was broadcast as US special envoy George Mitchell and US Vice President Joe Biden were visiting Israel.
It also came one day after the PLO Executive Committee voted to support the resumption of negotiations with Israel through indirect, US-brokered talks.
On Monday, the Palestinian Authority cabinet also approved the measure, even though it and PA President Mahmoud Abbas believe that West Bank construction projects such as the one in Beitar Illit show that Israel is not serious about peace.
Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction. In a gesture to the Palestinians, Israel agreed at the end of November to halt any construction project that lacked a foundation. However, it allowed work to continue on 3,000 apartment units that already had foundations at the time of the moratorium.
Now that the Beitar Illit project has been excluded from the freeze, that number has risen to 3,112.
Located a mere .4 kilometers over the pre-1967 border, Beitar Illit is the third-largest Jewish city in the West Bank, with a population of 36,000.
In spite of the Palestinian insistence that Israel withdraw completely to the pre-1967 border, Israel has assumed that it will retain Beitar Illit in any final status-agreement with the Palestinians.
On Monday, the ministry explained that initial approval for the 112 apartment units had been granted by former prime minister Ehud Olmert as part of a larger project of close to 300 units.
Contractors working on the project had then received all the permits necessary for the units and had laid the foundations for all but the 112 when the moratorium was announced.
A Defense Ministry statement to the media said these were not new approvals, but a very specific decision that had been taken to unfreeze the units for safety and infrastructure reasons.
A source explained that it was impossible to lay infrastructure for the larger project without construction of these 112.
The site, as it is now, also poses a safety hazard to people in the area, said the source.
Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said that the Defense Ministry was simply being “creative” in the excuses it offered for breaking its word regarding the moratorium.
This was the government’s way of welcoming the Americans to Israel, said Ofran.
The whole point of the moratorium is that new homes can no longer be built in the settlements, she said.
According to data released Sunday by the Knesset Research Center, it’s possible that the moratorium has frozen work on an estimated 3,000 new homes in the settlements.
The report was drawn up at the request of MK Danny Danon (Likud) as part of his drive to make compensation available for homeowners and contractors who have taken a financial hit as a result of the moratorium. It calculated that the families who owned these homes now had to pay an extra 10 months of rent while they waited to resume building.
Compensation for this rent could cost NIS 90 million, the report estimated, not including financial damage to contractors and their employees, as well as the loss of fees to local settler councils.
To arrive at that NIS 90m. figure, the Knesset Research Center looked at 2008, in which it said 2,023 permits had been issued for new apartment units in Judea and Samaria.
This number refers to individual permits acquired by homeowners from local authorities, for projects that had already been approved by the Defense Ministry, and does not constitute new government approvals of construction.
Final figures were not yet available for 2009, but the Knesset Research Center estimated that at least 2,000 new local permits for apartments had been handed out in 2009 for projects approved by the ministry before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office.
Netanyahu has not approved any new projects, although settlers and contractors have continued to receive local permits to build projects authorized by past governments.
The researcher who authored the project told the Post
that anecdotal evidence pointed to the fact that settlers had increased their rate of seeking local permits prior to the moratorium, under the belief that it would allow them to continue building.
It is likely that an additional 1,000 permits were granted by local authorities, he said, thereby bringing the number of those impacted by the freeze to 3,000. He cautioned that he had no data to back this up.
A Defense Ministry source, however, said that number matched its estimate.
Although the moratorium has been in effect for more than three months, the government has yet to agree on a formula to compensate settlers and contractors who have lost money from the delay in their housing projects.
Only now are government officials and politicians deliberating the criteria for compensating home-buyers and contractors.
Frustrated by the lack of progress on the matter, Danon and MK Uri Ariel (National Union) had threatened to ask the Knesset to legislate a compensation mechanism.
Danon has estimated that total compensation for the 10 months could reach NIS 160m. The Finance Ministry has said it is premature to cite a figure before the criteria have been set.
On Sunday, Netanyahu approved general terms for compensation, but the exact criteria are still being debated by a committee of representatives from the Finance, Interior and Defense ministries, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office.
Already it has been determined that compensation will be available to homeowners, contractors and local councils. Once the criteria are set, the mechanism for compensation can be implemented immediately.
As a result of the general criteria that have been established, Cabinet
Secretary Tzvi Hauser reached an agreement with Danon and Ariel, under
which both men withdrew bills they had submitted on the issue to the
Ministerial Committee on Legislation.
Danon said he was hopeful that the formula to be approved would prevent
the financial collapse of families who had put all of their resources
into building their homes.
Until now, he said, the government has only worried about enforcing the
freeze and has not thought of the people who were paying for it out of
their own pockets.
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.