Pipe dream or biggest West Bank city?

Pipe dream or biggest W.

Shaul Goldstein 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Shaul Goldstein 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
With its weathered caravans and weed-lined, rutted road, the small Gevaot hilltop community in the Gush Etzion bloc looks more like a place that the winds of time forgot than the future site of what could be the largest settlement city. Even the paint on the wooden sign leading to the site is faded. But it is here that, in the midst of international pressure against Israel to freeze settlement activity, Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein has plans to build not just some houses, but a city with 5,000 apartment units. The question of a city on the small hilltop on the road to Beit Shemesh was first put forward in 1998 by the Housing and Construction Ministry. Initial plans on a government Web site show that it could hold more than 13,000 apartment units, which, if fully built up, would make it the largest West Bank settlement. Peace Now and B'Tselem have published information on the plan in past reports. A spokesman for the Housing and Construction Ministry dismissed the idea as a pipe dream and said his ministry had abandoned it long ago. MK Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) said there was no chance in today's diplomatic climate that such a plan could be approved. In the case of a number of settlements, approval was given to construct only a small fraction of the actual plan. Even the small Nokdim settlement, he said, had initially been designed as a city. Still, outside of the civil administration letter, small signs continue to emerge that the plan has not totally been shelved. B'Tselem researcher Eyal Hareuveni said he had been surprised to discover evidence of the plan in protocols of a civil administration environmental subcommittee from October 2008. B'Tselem had obtained the protocol, he said, for research on West Bank wastewater treatment. According to a technical discussion on a treatment facility, it would have to be large enough to handle 800 to 1,000 apartment units because as many as 4,450 units might be constructed in that area. Goldstein is working on a 5,000-unit plan, which he said would help ease the housing crunch in nearby Jerusalem. He added that the plan had already moved through a number of approval phases in the Defense Ministry, but still needed more permits before it could be executed. The Defense Ministry has denied any such plans. However, Goldstein said he was undeterred by international pressure on Israel, particularly from the United States, to freeze settlement activity. On Wednesday he plans to discuss the matter with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when it visits the Gush Etzion region. That the visit was coming a day after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was coincidental, he said. But the parliamentarians needed to know about it, because the day might come "when they will have to say something," Goldstein said. He added that he was praying that the plan would be approved, "the way I pray for rain." Not all of the proposed construction has to be approved now, he said, adding that one could start with 500 units. His push for a city has put him in direct opposition with the 16 families that live on the hilltop, which have long fought for permission to exchange their antiquated caravans, constructed several decades ago, for real homes. Gevaot secretary Eli Klopman said they would like to see approval of a 60-unit plan, or even a 20-unit one that would also include a building for a yeshiva that was once on the site. He said he believed that Goldstein's larger vision had kept them from achieving their smaller one. Located 1.8 kilometers over the pre-1967 border, Gevaot was first established in 1984 as an IDF Nahal community, in which soldiers farmed the land. The IDF closed it in 1996. In 1997, the Shvut Yisrael Yeshiva moved onto the site from Efrat. In 2003, it returned to the Efrat settlement. Since then the area has been home to a small group of families. They live in caravans that were first used in Haifa to house Ethiopians. The area is neither an outpost nor a settlement. In 1998, Klopman said, the attorney general said it should be considered part of the adjacent Alon Shvut settlement, which has a population of some 3,200 people. Klopman said all the families living there had Alon Shvut addresses. He first moved to the area in 2000 to study at the yeshiva. Now, as a father of six, he said, his dream was to settle the land.