We’re in the midst of a housing crisis, and our government has promised to build tens of thousands of new homes all over the country. So what’s wrong with the recent government decision to advance the construction of 2,610 apartments in Givat Hamatos in Jerusalem?
What’s wrong is that whether you call it a “neighborhood” ‏(as most Israelis do‏) or a “settlement” ‏(as all other nations of the world do‏), Givat Hamatos is the first new Jewish neighborhood to be built over the Green Line in East Jerusalem since Har Homa in 1997. Har Homa, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiated during his first term as a kind of “price tag” for Israel’s withdrawal from parts of Hebron, has embroiled Israel in international controversy ever since. Is Givat Hamatos Netanyahu’s “price tag” for the Palestinian decision to apply for UN membership?

What’s clear is that Givat Hamatos is the keystone of a plan that quietly, piece by piece, with no Israeli public debate, is unilaterally sealing the southern border of annexed East Jerusalem with Israeli construction. In the last year, plans for building more than 5,000 homes in this southern area have been approved or advanced − 2,000 to expand Gilo toward Wallajeh and Beit Jala, almost 1,000 to expand Har Homa toward Beit Sahur, and now more than 2,000 units to link Har Homa with Gilo. These plans are presented under many guises − as an answer to the social protest, as an expression of Israel’s right to build in its capital. But never is the Israeli public allowed to see the full picture: that, despite its rhetoric, the Israeli government is working on the ground to scuttle a two-state solution.

Taken together, these expansion plans in southern East Jerusalem wreak havoc with the one set of principles agreed upon by most Israeli and Palestinian negotiators ‏(including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak‏) − the “Clinton Parameters.” Under these guidelines, Gilo would have been recognized as Israeli − swapped for a commensurate piece of land from within the Green Line − and the rest of the land on Jerusalem’s southern borders would become part of a Palestinian capital. Thus, through this construction, we are doing no less foreclosing on the option of a two-state solution. For, without an agreement on Jerusalem’s borders, there will be no Palestinian-Israeli peace.

In the meantime, Givat Hamatos, which has housed a prefab ghetto for immigrants from Ethiopia for much of the past two decades, will surround the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa with Israeli construction, eating up the last available land reserves that would let this rapidly growing neighborhood expand. Rather than providing land for Beit Safafa’s growth, Givat Hamatos chokes off the community’s expansion options. And this is happening on land that was, in part, expropriated from Palestinians after 1967.

Writing in Haaretz last Friday, Akiva Eldar reported that some of Givat Hamatos’ planned units will be made available to Palestinians. That would be a welcome change, if it in fact happens. However, these few units provided to Palestinians would come at the cost of detaching the Palestinian neighborhoods from Palestinian East Jerusalem, leaving Beit Safafa engulfed by Gilo, Har Homa and Givat Hamatos. It would not change the basic fact that Givat Hamatos is an attempt to claim another part of East Jerusalem for Israelis.

Givat Hamatos is slipping through the planning process at a time when the Israeli public is focused on the intense, exciting drama of Gilad Shalit’s return. There is great, tragic irony in this timing. In the very week that our government has made the difficult choice to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who embraced the path of terror, it is slamming the door in the face of those who have been willing to negotiate for a viable two-state solution. Just last month, Netanyahu spoke passionately at the UN about the need to forgo unilateral action and to return to negotiations.

He rallied the United States and several European governments to work against the Palestinians’ statehood bid, and they answered his call. Now, they see themselves betrayed by the Israeli government’s bald unilateral acts in East Jerusalem − acts that contradict the spirit of bilateralism, and violate the Israeli government’s recent commitment to the Quartet to refrain from inflammatory action. Advancing plans to build Givat Hamatos is not just a matter of provoking ill will; it is an unwise policy for Israel.

Sarah Kreimer is associate director of Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO dedicated to creating a more equitable Jerusalem and reaching an agreed-upon political future for the city.