Israeli government bodies have been promoting a plan over the past few weeks to build a neighborhood of 11,000 units for the ultra-Orthodox near the East Jerusalem airport.

Otniel Schneller, the Israeli Parliament member of Kadima party, said on Tuesday that the Israeli Housing Ministry had developed a plan to set up a massive new neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The ministry, however, denied any knowledge of the project. Schneller also said that the Jerusalem municipality was “happy with the idea.” The plan envisages the construction of a tunnel under a Palestinian neighborhood to connect the new quarter to one of the settlements in the Beit El area east of Ramallah.

The plan has not yet been submitted to the various planning committees since, according to Schneller, “it is still in the feasibility stage.” The new neighborhood is to be built close to the separation wall near the Qalandiya roadblock, which separates the Palestinian neighborhoods of north Jerusalem from Ramallah. If approved, it would be the largest building project over the Green Line in Jerusalem since the 1967 Six-Day War. The neighborhood, which will apparently be built on state or “Jewish National Fund” land would sit in the heart of one of the most crowded urban Palestinian areas in the West Bank.

Despite the Housing Ministry’s response, Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that “the plan was presented a number of times to various official bodies and that the director of the Housing Ministry’s Jerusalem district, Moshe Merhavya, was present at least at one such instance.”

Khalil Tafakji, a Palestinian expert on Israeli settlement in the West Bank told Arab News that the planned neighborhood in East Jerusalem is an alternative to the Safdie Plan (a plan by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie to build 20,000 units in west Jerusalem). He said that the plan was rejected by Jews in the western Jerusalem and subsequently shelved, but the need to build neighborhood in East Jerusalem still exists. Israel has built 500 units in Gilo settlement.

The plan, according to Tafakji, proposes connecting the new neighborhood to the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Kokhav Yaakov east of Ramallah, and Giv’at Zion which is built on lands of Kufur Aqab and Burqa, east of Ramallah. The two settlements are at present outside the planned route of the separation wall. To this end, a tunnel a few hundred meters long would be dug beneath the Palestinian village of Kufur Aqab and under the separation wall. These settlements will create a settling barrier from southeast Al Bireh to southwest Bitounya. Hence, and as Tafakji said “there will be an ultra-Orthodox Jewish demographic barrier between Jerusalem and Ramallah after Israel sealed Jerusalem from east with Abu Ghnaim settlements and from south with Gilo settlements.”

The idea to build an “eastern fence” to separate the settlements of the Jordan Valley and the mountains from large Palestinian communities like Ramallah had been raised in the past. The construction of the tunnel might be the first step in this direction. “If it is someday decided that Kokhav Yaakov will be part of the ‘Jerusalem envelope’ it would be logical to create such a link, but it has not yet been decided,” Schneller said. Jerusalem municipality said that “when the plan is officially presented to the municipality, it will be discussed and a decision will be taken about it.”

Tafakji considered the denial of Israeli Housing Ministry as a “test balloon from Israel to see the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim reaction.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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