Atarot project delayed for environmental reasons amid US-Israel dispute

The Atarot project is a controversial project that is causing friction between Israel.

Illustration of new neighborhood planned for Atarot area in Jerusalem (photo credit: ARCHITECT YUVAL KADMON)
Illustration of new neighborhood planned for Atarot area in Jerusalem

A controversial east Jerusalem housing project that had created friction between Israel and the Biden administration was delayed Monday for environmental reasons.

The Interior Ministry’s District Planning Committee asked for an environmental impact report after holding a hearing on the construction of 9,000 homes for a new Jewish ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem located over the pre-1967 lines.

The project would be located at the site of the former Kalandia Airport, situated next to the security barrier, Route 443 and the Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab.

The committee had been expected to approve the project for deposit, a move that would allow it to be prepared for final approval.

In a brief statement published Monday afternoon, the committee said it had decided to wait until completion of an environmental impact report before moving ahead with the project, which otherwise appeared to meet the general criteria for construction at that site.

 The site of the Atarot project in east Jerusalem.  (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF) The site of the Atarot project in east Jerusalem. (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

“The committee was impressed by the plan’s proper utilization of land reserves that have been unused to date,” it said, noting that the project included mixed private, commercial and public space and addressed transportation needs.

An extended final decision is yet to be published.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz), however, urged the committee to abandon the housing project in favor of renovating the airport, which had operated at that site from 1924-2000.

“It is wrong to destroy strategic infrastructure for housing units,” Frej said, as he clarified that he was not speaking on behalf of the government.

“Atarot Airport, which can be reconstructed in a short period of time, will serve as a secondary Israeli airport” that could be open to both Israeli and Palestinian passengers, he argued.

“The airport could serve at least five million passengers a year,” he said. “It’s good for the Israeli economy, it’s good for the Jerusalem economy, [and] it’s good for the Palestinians who currently have no aviation exit gate to the world.”

Most Palestinians who want to travel exit Israel through the Allenby Crossing with Jordan and fly out of Amman.

The Ben Gurion Airport is “very close to its capacity threshold and, as the decision on the location of Israel’s additional airport continues to linger, the existing resource of a ready airfield in Atarot must be utilized, “ Frej said.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, Israel had promised the US that it would not advance the Atarot project. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about the project on Thursday. An Israeli official has clarified that Jerusalem had explained to Washington that the project would come before the committee but that it would be delayed when it moved over to the upper echelon for approval.

The PA, the international community and the US are concerned that the construction of a large Jewish neighborhood over the pre-1967 line would make it difficult for east Jerusalem to become the future capital of a Palestinian state.

Israel holds that Jerusalem is its united capital and that it has a right to build Jewish homes in all parts of the city.