The breeze was hot as we made our way through a parched field. Over the hill was what looked like a mechanic’s shop with a small field in the back that had some sheep in it. A young man working at the shop gestured toward us and shouted in Arabic. We continued on, past several caravans. A woman peered at us through a window. That was in 2010, the last time I visited Givat Hamatos. The severely impoverished Jewish community, and the Arab community of Beit Safafa that adjoined it, gave no impression of being of great political importance at the time. Yet today the place is at the heart of an international controversy.
On Friday the European Union claimed that new plans to build 2,610 housing units there threatened the bloc’s relations with the Jewish state. “This represents a further highly detrimental step that undermines prospects for a two-state solution and calls into question Israel’s commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians,” the EU claimed.
The US State Department said Wednesday that the plans called into question Israel’s commitment to peace and would “poison the atmosphere” between Israel, the Palestinians and US. In what commentators called a “striking rebuke,” a State Department spokesman claimed that it would distance Israel from “even its closest allies.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined the outraged chorus, demanding Israel to “urgently reverse this decision.” He also claimed the plans “threaten the two-state solution...One cannot claim to support a solution and at the same time do things against without consequences being drawn, including at the European Union level.”
The issue is supposedly to do with geography. One report at Middle East Monitor claimed these housing units were “near Bethlehem.” Al-Jazeera’s Gregg Carlstrom claimed that the plans “could make it impossible to ever divide Jerusalem.” According to Carlstrom’s article the building would “cut the direct route between Bethlehem and Ramallah.” The new housing would also supposedly “close off the eastern approach” to Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood, meaning it “could not realistically become part of a future Palestinian state.”
The truth behind the Givat Hamatos scandal is that it was produced by the left-wing group Peace Now.
Not a single one of the “breaking news” stories about this plan were real breaking news reports about a new neighborhood; rather the reports were manipulated from the beginning with the aim of generating maximum press coverage while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington.
That this is not a new story becomes clear when one discovers the report at Terrestrial Jerusalem, a pro-Palestinian website, called “Looming Crises in East Jerusalem,” published on September 18, 2014.
The article described “town plan 13250, which provides for the construction of 2,610 units.” The report quotes a Walla article that noted “Netanyahu pulled all of these tenders at the very last moment, for fear of the international response at this point in time.”
Terrestrial Jerusalem noted, “If plans to build a settlement at the site are implemented, it will be the first new Israeli settlement neighborhood since construction commenced at Har Homa in the late 1990s.
Moreover, 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 has dire implications for the possibility of any peace agreement. Namely: It will make the Clinton Parameters – or principles like them – impossible to implement in east Jerusalem.”
The wording of this earlier report is nearly identical to that of the initial press reports that caused the recent condemnations from Washington and Europe. It also reads like the Peace Now statements that were picked up by a compliant press. Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran claimed, “It’s a huge problem for any future agreement that divides the city...
It blocks the way for any capital the Palestinians might hope to have in east Jerusalem.” Parroting the Terrestrial Jerusalem claim, France’s foreign minister noted Givat Hamatos was the “first new neighborhood over the Green Line in 15 years.”
Let's take a step back and review what we now know. Givat Hamatos is the name of a small hill adjacent to the Green Line and close to Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, just across Hebron Road, which goes to Bethlehem, from the Mar Elias monastery. After Israel annexed this area and it became part of the municipality of Jerusalem after the 1967 war, the neighborhood of Gilo was constructed next to it in the 1980s.
In the 1990s another neighborhood, Har Homa, was built in the valley to the east. In the 1990s Har Homa, too, was said to be the “doomsday” obstacle to peace that would “cut off” Bethlehem from Ramallah and Jerusalem.
When several hundred immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia were settled in caravans at Givat Hamatos in the 1990s, it was not considered an obstacle to peace. In short, the very same neighborhood now supposedly “cutting off” Beit Safafa and Bethelhem was built 20 years ago, and no one cared. It isn’t a new settlement, or even a new neighborhood.
But pro-Palestinian organizations needed a news story. It was important – just as when Joe Biden visited Israel in 2010 and when Shimon Peres was in Washington in 2011 – for “peace” organizations to announce “new settlements” to create controversy and put pressure on Israel. These conveniently timed reports always claim that Israel has “announced” new plans. But even the left-leaning Haaretz admitted that, “The plan was already approved in early December 2012 by a planning committee.”
And there you have it: It wasn’t recently “announced,” it wasn’t “new” – and it wasn’t news.
The media outlets are the customers of organizations like Peace Now, and some reporters are sympathetic to repackaging statements and helping these groups drive the narrative of “new settlements.”
Foreign diplomats are also receptive. The two work in concert to create “controversy.” If the US State Department can be coddled into condemning the “new settlements” then the story “has legs” and becomes larger and larger, with more pressure building on the EU and others to condemn the “obstacle to peace” and note that Israel is “making decisions that undermine peace.”
Israel didn’t make any decisions. The Jerusalem municipality didn’t make any decisions. Nothing changed in Jerusalem between October 1 and October 4, and yet a massive story emerged as a “new settlement” was supposedly being built – atop an existing “settlement.” Most of the information published about Givat Hamatos was inaccurate; It isn’t “near Bethlehem” anymore than Beit Safafa, Ramat Rahel, Har Homa and Gilo are near Bethlehem. It doesn’t “cut Bethlehem off” from anything. Beit Safafa is partly inside pre-1967 Jerusalem’s borders, and many of its residents are Israeli citizens; they were not waiting to become part of the “future Palestinian capital.”
Of the 200,000 Jewish residents living beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem, from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City to Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot and Gilo, Givat Hamatos is the least “obstacle” to peace of any of them. It adjoins Talpiot, a Jewish neighborhood inside the Green Line, and also Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. But the kibbutz isn’t an “obstacle,” of course; isn’t cutting anything off. How does building new homes atop old ones in Givat Hamatos “block a Palestinian capital” anymore than Ramat Rahel which is across the road? The question that has to be asked is why the Israeli government’s officials and spokesmen are so slow to comment on “scandals” like this, and don’t see them coming. Every year the “peace” organizations try to embarrass Israeli officials or visiting US officials by announcing “new construction” in east Jerusalem, and each time the charade plays out the same way.
Pro-Israel groups condemn the media or Peace Now, or point out “the facts,” such as “Ramot is not a settlement,” or note that the “approval” of the plan is one step in a dozen-step process, so that it seems these plans are “announced” a dozen times by the media, each with a round of condemnations. But knowing that this is how the charade works, and knowing the media always takes the bait, why doesn’t Israel’s government plan better for these manufactured scandals? If the government doesn’t start thinking ahead it will keep getting Givat Hamatoasted whenever “peace” organizations want to provoke condemnations of Israel.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman