Israel backs housing projects at Jerusalem’s Atarot airport under US pressure

Israel informed Biden administration officials on Thursday that they have shelved a controversial plan to promote a massive housing project in the Atarot district of East Jerusalem following the backlash from Washington, a senior Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The project, which received preliminary approval from Jerusalem’s local municipal planning committee earlier this week, would see 9,000 housing units for ultra-Orthodox Jews built at the abandoned site at the former Atarot airport. The area was annexed by Israel as part of the enlarged Jerusalem after 1967, but is outside the Green Line.

The plan was removed from the agenda for a December 6 meeting of the District Planning and Building Committee under the auspices of the Treasury Department, the official said.

Following the Atarot plan’s approval by the local Jerusalem committee on Wednesday, US State Department officials reached out to Jerusalem to express their disapproval. Israeli officials tried to explain that the progress was a preliminary step and that the final approval would take months, if not years, but Washington was not convinced, the Israeli official said.

The abandoned Atarot Airport is located directly south of the Palestinian Quarter in East Jerusalem, Kafr Aqab. Although Kafr Aqab is outside the security barrier, it is also part of Israeli-annexed Jerusalem.

The project at Atarot had been frozen for over a decade, and even the Trump administration had pushed back against Israel’s efforts to promote it. A plan by the former Netanyahu government to build 4,000 homes in the area was opposed by the Trump administration, the Walla news site reported Thursday.

Related: The dizzying rise, the rapid fall and the planned radical reorganization of Jerusalem Airport

Kafr Aqab was specified in Trump’s “Peace for Prosperity” plan as one of the East Jerusalem areas to be included in “the sovereign capital of the state of Palestine.” The European Union recently raised objections to the plan in the context of its broader opposition to the coalition’s recent announcements on settlement expansion.

The abandoned Atarot Airport, north of Jerusalem, November 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Opponents of the project argue that it would hamper diminishing efforts to promote a two-state solution by dividing a large part of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians consider the capital of their future state.

The possible revival of the Atarot project came as Israel promotes controversial construction projects in and around Jerusalem without making major announcements that could anger the Biden administration.

Last month, a local planning committee in Jerusalem approved the expropriation of public land for the controversial Givat HaMatos neighborhood, which critics say would largely cut off Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem from the southern West Bank.

The same committee put forward plans for the construction of 470 homes in the existing East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev.

A military body, meanwhile, scheduled meetings to discuss a planned settlement of 3,400 homes on a barren hillside outside Jerusalem known as the E1. Critics say building in the area will effectively separate the northern and southern West Bank, making it impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state along with Israel.

Israel considers the whole of East Jerusalem as part of its undivided capital and says it should be able to build there at its own discretion. But most of the international community has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and considers Jewish neighborhoods there as settlements.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank, areas that Israel conquered in the Six Day War that year and that the Palestinians want for their future state. The Palestinians consider the settlements and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem – which now house about 700,000 people – as a major obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them illegal.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has criticized the construction of settlements as an obstacle to ultimately reviving the long-dying peace process, but has not called for a freeze. In 2010, a statement approving about 1,600 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews in another part of East Jerusalem during a visit by Biden, then vice president, exacerbated a diplomatic rift that flourished during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settlement parties, and the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is opposed to a Palestinian state. But he is at the forefront of an unmanageable coalition of parties from across the political spectrum – some as opposed to settlements – and appears to be seeking a middle ground that would equate the issue at home and abroad.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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