West Bank Settlement Expansion Planned Against Netanyahu's Orders

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The West Bank settlement of Efrat.Credit: AFP

The Housing and Construction Ministry allocated 850,000 shekels ($215,000) for the expansion of the settlement of Efrat in the West Bank last October, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having reversed the decision to build on the site.

The financial allocation, which was intended for the purposes of planning construction on a hill near the settlement, was made a year after Netanyahu reversed a Housing Ministry decision to build there.

The rocky slope, known as Eitam Hill, is situated east of Efrat and south of the southern outskirts of Bethlehem. It has been a strategic target of settlers for the past decade.

In 2009, the Housing Ministry planned to build 2,500 units there. When the separation barrier was planned, the settlers fought for the hill’s inclusion west of the fence. Their efforts failed, however, as did a number of attempts to build an outpost at the site.

In 2009, 1,700 dunams (420 acres) on the hill were declared state lands. In 2010, a road was built to the site on private Palestinian land. Hanaya Nahliel, an employee of the Amana settlement movement, was tried but avoided a conviction.

In 2011, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the establishment of a farm at the site, a move that many regarded as a smokescreen to enable the preparation of the land for construction.

Meanwhile, a number of Palestinians petitioned the High Court of Justice over the matter, and their cases are still pending.

Last week, Civil Administration personnel destroyed a Palestinian wheat field at the site, claiming it had been planted by squatters on state land. They did not demolish the road that had been unlawfully built on private Palestinian land, nor did they touch any of the dozens of buildings belonging to outposts in the area.

In November 2013, the Housing Ministry issued tenders for the planning of 20,000 housing units in the Palestinian territories, among them the controversial E-1 area east of Jerusalem. The ministry also had a plan to fund an architect to plan 840 housing units at Eitam Hill. Eventually, Netanyahu ordered the plan shelved because of wide international protests.

It now emerges that the Housing Ministry, under Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi), is persisting in its efforts to settle the hill, including payment last October of 850,000 shekels to two architects (for which a tender is not required). One of the architects, Danny Baron, who is working on a number of other projects for the Housing Ministry in Efrat, received 456,000 shekels. Another company, Eltan Civil Engineering, which specializes in road construction, received 370,000 shekels to plan roads at the site.

The initiative is that of the Housing Ministry and was not coordinated with the Defense Ministry.

Peace Now director general Yariv Oppenheimer told Haaretz, “The settlers are trying for a preelection grab to establish facts on the ground, to spend hundreds of thousands of shekels and complicate further the chances to separate into two states. Construction on Eitam Hill will add fuel to the diplomatic fire, and will harm Israel’s efforts to deal with international pressure and moves against Israel in The Hague."

The Housing and Construction Ministry did not respond to questions for this report.

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