by Andrew Wilson
Mahmoud Abbas’ pursuit of the Palestinian cause at the United Nations has been accompanied by a series of announcements by Israel of new settlement construction in and around Jerusalem. Since August, housing authorities have announced over 4,300 new housing units planned for construction at Har Homa, Gilo, Ramat Shlomo, and Pisgat Ze’ev. But one of Israel’s announced settlements, at Giv’at Hamatos, threatens to completely isolate one Palestinian town—a scenario that could escalate the already tense state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians.
At each announcement of new settlements there have been voices of protest from the Palestinians and much of the international community. For example, EU spokesperson Catherine Ashton contends that “these initiatives run contrary to the current EU and Quartet efforts to bring about the resumption of peace negotiations.” In view of the efforts by the Quartet, a group consisting of the EU, UN, U.S., and Russia, to restart negotiations, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has condemned these unilateral moves by Israel as “unacceptable.”
One could charitably attribute Israel’s actions to a strategy of hard bargaining, to establish markers to be traded for Palestinian concessions during whatever negotiations might happen in the future. Or if no negotiations were forthcoming, to establish new “facts on the ground” that weaken the Palestinian position, and even to gradually remove them from Jerusalem.
Among these settlement projects, the plan for 2,160 new housing units in Giv’at Hamatos deserves special attention by the international community. Currently vacant land, in the 1980s it was the site of a trailer park containing temporary homes for Ethiopian refugees. The trailers are largely gone now, leaving behind a hardscrabble hill. It is permitted for construction, but significant construction has not yet begun.
Although it is only a few hundred meters from West Jerusalem, Gilo, and Har Homa, the salient geographic fact about Giv’at Hamatos is that its construction would directly obstruct the entrance to the Palestinian town of Beit Safafa. Geographically speaking, Beit Safafa is a suburb of Bethlehem, but the construction of Giv’at Hamatos would strangle its relationship with its urban hub, as well as with neighboring Beit Jala. This plan hems in Beit Safafa on every side, making it a near-island, surrounded by Gilo to the south and west, Jerusalem to the north, and its eastern perimeter now to be blocked by Giv’at Hamatos. There are few proposed settlements that would be such a direct affront to an adjacent Palestinian community as Giv’at Hamatos would be to Beit Safafa.
When urban development is planned from the top down, it can create friction within affected communities. In cities throughout the world there are countless neighborhoods that have been destroyed or permanently altered by the decisions of central planners. Where there is the potential for ethnic conflict, municipalities would do well to gain the support of the affected constituencies. Failure to do so has often resulted in blighted neighborhoods, spiking crime rates, rioting, and arson. Considering that this area is on the fault-line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the potential for violence is even greater.
Before Israel takes steps to develop the land on Giv’at Hamatos, it would do well to consult the residents of Beit Safafa about a development that so impinges on their future. There should be efforts made to build consensus and support for the plan. Women’s groups and community groups should be enlisted. My friends in Jerusalem tell me there is already a considerable reservoir of goodwill between the inhabitants of Beit Safafa and nearby Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Pat. Some there might welcome the economic benefits of gentrification that this new development could bring. If this were handled well, there is even the possibility that if given the option to be a part of Israel or Palestine, a majority of Beit Safafa might choose to remain in Israel.
However, such goodwill is likely to evaporate if Israel takes this unilateral step to build Giv’at Hamatos without respecting the views of the residents of Beit Safafa. Going forward with the settlement would force the residents of Beit Safafa to either accept the fact that they are now Israelis or move out. This would undoubtedly create animosity towards Israel that would last for a long time to come, even after the peace agreement is signed.
For these reasons, the future of Giv’at Hamatos, more than any other proposed settlement in the Jerusalem area, needs to be determined by negotiations and supported by consultation with the affected populace. The international community should do what it can to promote conditions conducive to peace at the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where 2,000 years ago the announcement was given, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
[Photo courtesy of Michael Wrose]