Constructing Conflict (Extract)

Israel's continued building activities in disputed areas of Jerusalem upsets both the Americans and the Palestinians

07build (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Hewn through hills across the Green Line, in a part of Jerusalem that was annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War, the road to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo meanders through a pine forest near the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus Campus and the Har Hotzvim high-tech complex. But as it enters the neighborhood and turns into Rabbi Zalman Druk Street, it quickly transports drivers into a world very different from the monuments of modern secular achievement it leaves behind. On an oppressively hot summer's day, black-hatted and caftaned men and women in long sleeves and skirts scurry between an array of schools, yeshivas and synagogues with old-world names like "Beit Yaakov," "Midrash Hasidei de Slonim," "Yeshivat Binyan Av" and "Kahal Hasidim." Many of the place names and notices are in Yiddish. Most of the sign-writing is in ornate, medieval lettering. But there is nothing old-world about the homes. The buildings of study and prayer are interspersed between neat, squat modern duplexes built of Jerusalem stone, many with sweeping views of the Judean Hills and neighboring Palestinian and Israeli communities. It is all very different from the dark, rickety jumble of older ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the capital, like Me'ah She'arim and Beit Yisrael. Founded in 1995, Ramat Shlomo is now home to around 20,000 ultra-Orthodox or haredi Israelis. But as they go about their business in the tranquil, old-world atmosphere, many are probably unaware that like several other new Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods in disputed areas across the Green Line (the 1967 border with Jordan), Ramat Shlomo has become a source of friction between Israel and the United States. For although the State Department says they should never have been built at all, and should not be further developed, construction of private and public buildings is going on apace. From the barely tarred and newly paved Hatzadik Meshtefenesht Street, just below Zalman Druk, sounds of hammering and sawing pierce the air, as Arab workers build more fine homes with even better views. The new street, on the northern outskirts of Ramat Shlomo, overlooks the nearby Arab neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina and the winding road to the West Bank capital of Ramallah. From the Egged bus depot, near where a new school is planned on the haredi neighborhood's southeastern perimeter, a row of huge red-roofed villas in Shuafat is less than 150 meters away. Ramat Shlomo made news in 2003, when Chabad families in The Lubavitcher Rebbe Street inaugurated their "770," a precise replica of the Chabad World Center Synagogue on 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, and again in September last year, when archaeologists on a salvage dig discovered a quarry they think provided the huge stones for the Western Wall of the Temple Mount 2,000 years ago. And it hit the headlines in mid-June when, just two days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to begin a 6th visit this year to help promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel, despite well-known American objections, announced plans to build another 1,300 housing units in the neighborhood. Rice was furious and accused Israel of undermining Palestinian confidence in the peace process. "It's important to have an atmosphere of trust and confidence. Unfortunately, I do believe, and the United States believes, that the actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for negotiation, and that is not what we want," she declared after a meeting with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. Although her comment was triggered by the Ramat Shlomo plan, it reflected growing American frustration with large-scale Israeli building over the Green Line since the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, last November, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reconfirmed Israel's longstanding commitment to a freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank. But Israel, the United States and the Palestinians have different interpretations of what the "freeze" means. "The prime minister never committed orally or in writing to cease construction in Jerusalem or the large settlement blocs. Jerusalem is a growing city, with a growing population that has growing needs. It is totally unrealistic, in fact impossible, to expect a cessation of construction there. Any Israeli leader who promised that would not be able to keep his promise," says Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev. But the Americans hold that Israel cannot be allowed to predetermine the outcome of talks on borders by building across the Green Line anywhere, including Jerusalem. And the Palestinians see in the Israeli building an act of bad faith, which, they say, makes Palestinian leaders trying to negotiate a peace agreement look ridiculous on the Palestinian street. Both the U.S. and the Palestinians warn that continued Israeli building across the Green Line in Jerusalem could torpedo the peace process. Israel counters that it cannot be told where to build in its sovereign capital; moreover, it points out that all its building across the Green Line is in Jewish neighborhoods that under any conceivable peace deal with the Palestinians will remain in Israel - so that building in them will not affect the contours of a final settlement in any way. "We see no contradiction whatsoever between moving forward on the peace process and building in Jerusalem," says Regev. According to figures re-leased by Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based NPO that monitors Israeli construction in the annexed area known as "East Jerusalem," in the seven months since Annapolis, construction tenders have been published for a whopping 1,631 units in Jewish neighborhoods across the Green Line, 428 in Har Homa, 763 in Pisgat Ze'ev and 440 in East Talpiot. Ir Amim, which lobbies for a Jerusalem equitably shared by Israelis and Palestinians, says that over the past six years the authorities have approved or submitted for public review plans for almost 10,000 new housing units in Jewish neighborhoods across the Green Line. Of the 4,370 new units approved, 2,653 are in Har Homa, on the southern outskirts of the city, facing Bethlehem. Of the 5,247 undergoing public review, by far the biggest planned project, 3,150 units, is at Givat Hamatos, a mobile home site about two kilometers northwest of Har Homa. Israel's latest round of troubles with the U.S., the Palestinians and the international community started less than a month after Annapolis when Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim announced tenders for over 300 new units in Har Homa. "Har Homa is situated within Jerusalem's municipal borders where Israeli law applies. Therefore there is nothing preventing construction there, just as there is nothing preventing construction anywhere else in Israel," he declared. "It's Israeli settlements or peace. They can't have both," chief Palestinian negotiator Sa'eb Erekat retorted, calling the new building plans "a systematic policy to void the peace process." In response to an international outcry, Olmert fired off a letter in late December informing other relevant government ministries that all future plans for building across the Green Line would have to get his and the defense minister's personal stamp of approval. But, says Regev, the letter never applied to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, just like everywhere else in Israel proper, building projects go forward on the approval of municipal and regional planning committees. The government only gets involved when the Housing Ministry initiates plans and issues tenders for their implementation. In March, there was another storm of international protest when the government announced plans to build in Givat Ze'ev, a West Bank settlement between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Approached by a private developer, the Housing Ministry revived a project approved in 1999, but aborted when the second intifada erupted in 2000 and no-one wanted to buy the apartments. Now, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and Torah Judaism, the government approved plans for 750 units in a new separate haredi neighborhood. Says Hagit Ofran, head of Peace Now's settlement watch team: "Givat Ze'ev opened the floodgates for building everywhere, because this was an expansion of a West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem's municipal boundaries." The Givat Ze'ev case was quickly followed by still unconfirmed reports in late March that Olmert had agreed to "unfreeze" 800 units in the haredi settlement of Beitar Illit, about 12 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem, and, in June, by publication of the tenders for Pisgat Ze'ev and the plans to build in ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo. Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.