|According to reports in the Israeli media, last Thursday (November 25), the Israeli government notified the Biden Administration that it would halt its plans to construct a major new settlement/neighborhood in the Qalandia/Atarot area purportedly amid US pressure. As a result, the planned discussion for December 6 at the District Planning Committee was concurrently removed from the committee's agenda on the same day. However, by Sunday morning (November 28), the discussion on the plan had been placed back on the agenda. As of now, the District Planning Committee, under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, is scheduled to convene on December 6 where they will decide on depositing the plan for objections. These events followed a decision by the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee on November 24 to recommend the plan for deposit. The plan (TPS 764936) calls for the establishment of a massive new settlement of 9,000 housing units located along the northern edge of East Jerusalem, which would effectively seal off the connection between the city and the Ramallah area.
While the plan was submitted by the Ministry of Housing whose current minister is Ze'ev Elkin, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee is under the authority of the Minister of Interior, Ayalet Shaked, who is from the right-wing pro-settlement Yamina party. The plan could not have returned to the agenda without both of their consent. The sudden reversal is in direct contradiction to the Israeli government's declared commitment to shelve the plan. While the Israeli authorities may attempt to relegate the upcoming discussion as a prosaic, bureaucratic step in a lengthy approval process, it is a necessary stage in the plan's final approval and indeed advances the plan one step closer to full validation.
Strategic Location & the Geopolitical Ramifications
The Atarot settlement plan is designated for the location of the now defunct Atarot (Qalandia) Airport, situated on the northern tip of East Jerusalem in the center of a densely populated Palestinian urban space between Ramallah and the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. Replete with 9,000 housing units, hotels and commercial spaces on an area of 1243 dunams, the extensive housing project is reportedly intended for the ultra-orthodox population, slated to house tens of thousands of Israelis over the Green Line in Jerusalem. If constructed, Atarot along with Givat Hamatos in the south will be the first new settlement/neighborhood built in East Jerusalem in over two decades.
The majority of the space designated for the new settlement is considered state land, however, a small portion of it is privately owned by Palestinians. While the plan does not mark the private lands for expropriation, it does intend to initiate a re-parcelization process that will theoretically allocate building rights to all landowners, yet the implementation of this would need to be closely monitored. Despite this, the plan was prepared and being advanced without consulting the Palestinian landowners. Moreover, this does not change the fact that the plan carries with it far-reaching ramifications. Israeli construction in Atarot will not only deplete the remaining land reserves in the area for Palestinian development, but it will likewise create an Israeli wedge between Ramallah and the northern perimeter of East Jerusalem, fracturing Palestinian territorial contiguity necessary for any future viable Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
It should be noted that in the framework of past peace talks, the Atarot airport area was marked to ultimately be transferred to the Palestinians. Indeed even within the now obsolete Trump "peace plan," which allocated the majority of Jerusalem to Israel, the Atarot area was specifically earmarked for a future Palestinian state. For that reason according to an Israeli news site, former Prime Minister Netanyahu was forced to suspend plans to advance construction in Atarot due to a rare objection expressed by the Trump Administration at the time.
Instead, the plans for Atarot along with E1 in the east and Givat Hamatos/Har Homa E in the south are now being accelerated with little to no restraint under the current Israeli "government of change" who in theory has committed to preserving the status quo and contains members who are advocates of the two-state framework. These measures are only entrenching the occupation and foreclosing any remaining prospect of an agreed political resolution, consigning both Israelis and Palestinians alike to an irreparable one-state reality whereby one group is afforded full basic civil and human rights, while the other is deprived of those same rights.
Severe Housing Discrimination
Beyond its geopolitical implications, the Atarot plan likewise underscores the systematic discrimination implicit in Israeli planning and building policy in Jerusalem. While outline plans for thousands of housing units are advanced for Israeli settlements and neighborhoods across Jerusalem, in contrast, little to no plans are promoted for Palestinian areas. In the absence of such plans, it is impossible to procure building permits, forcing many Palestinians to build without them, which subjects their homes to the threat of demolition, which in recent years has increased exponentially. This unequitable urban planning has long served as a lever of Palestinian displacement from the city in service to Israel's longstanding goal of preserving a Jewish demographic majority in Jerusalem, while further cementing Israeli territorial control.
Rather than utilizing the space in Qalandia/Atarot to meet the severe housing needs of the Palestinian population, the Israeli authorities are instead advancing a massive new settlement for Israelis in East Jerusalem directly adjacent to two Palestinian neighborhoods, which are in dire need of proper residential development – Beit Hanina to its south and Kufr Aqab to its north. Located just meters away, the new settlement will stand in stark juxtaposition with Kufr Aqab, one of eight East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods physically detached from the city by the Separation Barrier whose residents must cross a checkpoint in order to access the rest of the city. These isolated enclaves suffer from acute municipal neglect and are devoid of basic service provision exemplified in the substandard living conditions and hazardous unrestrained and unregulated construction. It should be noted that Ze'ev Elkin, the current Minister of Housing and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, who is strongly promoting the Atarot plan, proposed legislation in 2017 to formally remove the neighborhoods beyond the barrier from the Jerusalem municipality.
Infrastructure Work in the Atarot Airport Area
Over the past few months, extensive infrastructure work has been taking place in the area directly adjacent to the site of the planned settlement. According to the Jerusalem Municipality, construction is being carried out for an enormous bus parking lot to address the significant shortage of bus parking throughout the city. However, in light of the massive amount of infrastructure work witnessed on the ground, there is speculation that it is part of laying the groundwork for the new settlement. In parallel, construction of the Qalandia checkpoint tunnel has begun, which is slated to expedite settler traffic from the settlements in the northeast of Jerusalem into the city through this area. Major construction for the tunnel is presently being carried out just beyond the Palestinian side of the Qalandia checkpoint and directly next to Ar-Ram.