Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endangered the unity of Jerusalem by authorizing 600 new Israeli- Arab homes in the Beit Safafa neighborhood, Education Minister Naftali Bennett warned on Monday.
“It’s a de facto way of dividing the city,” Bennett said at the opening session of the annual conference of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, which took place in the capital.
Hours earlier, before departing for Africa, Netanyahu approved the project, as well as 240 new housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Har Homa and Ramot, both located over the pre- 1967 lines. In addition, he and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman agreed to deposit plans for 560 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.
The approvals were issued amid calls by right-wing politicians to authorize building beyond the pre-1967 lines in the wake of two terrorist attacks last week that claimed the lives of Rabbi Michael Mark, 48, and Hallel Yaffa Ariel, 13. But they took issue with the decision to solely approve Israeli-Arab housing in Beit Safafa without advancing a project for Jewish residents in the abutting Givat Hamatos area.
Initial announcements of the Givat Hamatos project brought instant condemnation from the international community and the Palestinians because it is located between the Jewish neighborhoods of Har Homa and Gilo.
They see its construction as blocking the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state between what would be Palestinian neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
Bennett told the audience at the settlers conference that this was precisely why Israeli-Arab construction in that area without corresponding Jewish building would be dangerous.
“Givat Hamatos is the decisive factor in the unity of Jerusalem,” Bennett said. “It is therefore a strategic point for the future of Jerusalem.”
The international community and the Palestinians, he said, also want to create territorial continuity between the Jewish neighborhood of Malha in Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.
“We want the exact opposite – Israeli territorial continuity between Talpiot and Gilo, so we can preserve the unity of Jerusalem,” he stated.
“I call on the government not to authorize Palestinian building there without Israeli building.”
Aviv Tatarski of the NGO Ir Amim, which monitors Jerusalem affairs, told The Jerusalem Post that the 600 homes were part of a plan to expand existing buildings, and did not constitute an expansion of Beit Safafa.
The approvals for the new homes were given in 2012, but a few small technical steps that would allow construction to start were never completed, he said.
Beit Safafa residents have petitioned the Jerusalem District Court on the matter, Tatarski added, saying that Netanyahu’s order with regard to the homes was likely given as part of those legal proceedings.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin praised the construction approval for 140 Jewish homes in Ramot, in the northern part of the city, and 100 in Har Homa, in southeast Jerusalem, and called on the prime minister to expedite building Jewish homes in Givat Hamatos.
More than 2,600 homes were approved for Jewish residents in Givat Hamatos by the Jerusalem Building and Planning Committee in 2014, although construction has been on hold.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has been at odds with Elkin since last year, when the minister usurped his authority for decisions involving the city’s development, said the municipality should regain complete autonomy over all decisions regarding construction. He also took issue with the link between building and terrorist attacks.
“It is a mistake to approve construction in Jerusalem only after a terrorist attack,” Barkat said at the opening of the conference Monday morning. “We need to build in Jerusalem always. We cannot give in to the terrorists; they must pay a price.”
Barkat, who has long contended that construction approval in Jerusalem is apolitical and must not be frozen in either sector, said home approval permits should unilaterally correspond with the city’s master plan for improving infrastructure in both the east and west.
“As far as construction in Jerusalem is concerned, we have a master plan that properly addresses the needs of both the Jewish community and the Muslim population, just as any other city in the world does,” he said.
“We must let residents purchase homes in any place they wish. I hear that there is a ‘building freeze’ in Jerusalem. Don’t let them scare you; construction in Jerusalem must never be stopped for any reason at all.”
Barkat’s political rival, Kulanu party head Moshe Kahlon, asserted at a meeting of his faction at the Knesset on Monday that because terror attacks were intended to engender fear, the government had “no other choice” than to build more Jewish homes in east Jerusalem and abandon any de facto building freeze. He said the freeze had resulted in young couples leaving the city and other undesired demographic changes, which he deemed “an inseparable part of the housing crisis.”
Anat Ben Nun, Peace Now’s director of development and external relations, took the government to task in a statement for allocating exponentially fewer building permits for Palestinians than for Jews since the Six Day War.
“Since 1967, the state planned 55,000 housing units for Israelis in east Jerusalem and fewer than 1,000 housing units for Palestinians,” Ben Nun claimed.
“Even the current plan for Palestinians was put forward due to a High Court [of Justice] decision,” she said. “As long as there is no agreement, construction for Israelis in east Jerusalem is illegitimate and harmful to the possibility of reaching a two-state solution with two capitals in Jerusalem.”
On Sunday night, rightwing parliamentarians from the Knesset’s Land of Israel caucus met in Ma’aleh Adumim and stated that building was not enough of a response to terrorism.
They called to annex Ma’aleh Adumim and said they planned to introduce legislation to that effect within two weeks.
“Terrorism will only end when they [the Palestinians] understand that we are here to stay,” said the caucus co-chair, MK Yoav Kisch (Likud).
“The time has come to say that Ma’aleh Adumim is an Israeli city in every way. In two weeks we will introduce a law [to annex the city],” Kisch said.
Bennett said that moving forward, Israel must annex Area C of the West Bank, and give the Palestinians living there citizenship.
“At first the world will not accept it, but then it doesn’t accept Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall either,” Bennett said.
He threw his support behind the call of right-wing politicians to start such a plan of imposing sovereignty on Area C by annexing Ma’aleh Adumim.