Israel's military establishment has approved the establishment of a new, permanent neighborhood and a farm near the West Bank settlement of Efrat. The projects will go beyond the community's current built-up area, constituting an effective expansion of the Etzion Bloc of settlements toward the north and north-east. After they are completed, Jewish settlement in northern Gush Etzion will reach the edges of Bethlehem's southernmost suburbs.
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The plan for the neighborhood was approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. It calls for building 40 single-family homes on Givat Hadagan, replacing the trailer park on this site at the northern edge of Efrat. The Israel Lands Administration this week published a tender for the homes, a move that requires the defense minister's approval.
Approval for the farm was issued by the Israel Defense Forces. It will be built at Givat Eitam, located on the Palestinian side of the planned route of the separation barrier. Its establishment is designed to preserve the territory for the future expansion of Efrat.
Efrat is located on a series of hills on a mountain ridge east of Route 60, which connects the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. Each hill has its own name. Givat Hadagan, the northernmost one, is a few hundred meters from the Deheisheh refugee camp and from the Palestinian town of Al-Hadr, south of Bethlehem. Givat Hadagan was planned as a neighborhood of 500 homes. Construction was approved in the 1990s but never carried out for both diplomatic and bureaucratic reasons. In the late 1990s settlers turned the site into an unauthorized neighborhood of trailer homes that is today the campus of Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak.
Since the start of Benjamin Netanyahu's second term as prime minister, Efrat's leaders have been pressuring Likud representatives to advance the building plans for Givat Hadagan. About 40 percent of Efrat residents voted Likud in the last election. Almost all the Likud cabinet ministers have visited the community and expressed support for its expansion. This pressure bore fruit two months ago, after UNESCO admitted Palestine into the United Nations agency as a full member. Approval was issued for the construction of 2,000 homes in West Bank settlements, including 277 on a third hill in Efrat, Givat Hazayit. This project consists of apartment buildings in an existing neighborhood and is consistent with the Netanyahu government's policy of adding homes within built-up areas of settlements without expanding them, a policy the coalition maintains has broad public support in Israel.
Of the 40 homes planned for Givat Hadagan, 10 are to be sold as finished houses comprising up to 160 square meters of floor space each. The buyers of the remaining 30 lots will arrange for the construction of their homes themselves. The project is expected to be completed within two or three years.
While the state land agency's action will expand Gush Etzion to the north, the army's could lead to an even more significant expansion of this settlement bloc in general and Efrat in particular - to the north-east and to the other side of the planned route of the West Bank separation fence.
The army gave its approval for the Efrat Local Council to build a farm on a 1,700-dunam (425 acre ) area called Givat Eitam by the settlers and Jabel Abu Zeid by the Palestinians. The farm is to be a placeholder until a plan to build 2,500 homes on the site can be carried out.
When the separation barrier was built in the Efrat area, then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz included the area on the western side of the barrier, but as the result of deliberations in the High Court of Justice the route was changed to exclude Givat Eitam. It can be expected that the establishment of the farm will be followed by the building of an access road and the deployment of IDF soldiers and other security arrangements, to guarantee the area's future role as part of Efrat.
This was not the first time this year that official approval was given to expand the borders of Gush Etzion. Nine months ago, after the terror attack in Itamar, the cabinet approved the construction of a total of 400 permanent homes in various settlements, including 48 in Kfar Eldad, near Tekoa and Nokdim. These settlements belong to the Gush Etzion Regional Council, but they are located deep within Palestinian areas, east of the separation barrier. At the time it was argued that these projects did not constitute an expansion of the respective settlements but rather the replacement of trailer homes with permanent structures.
According to Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer, "The current government dares to go further than any of its predecessors, and systematically legalizes [unauthorized] outposts. Givat Hadagan is a symbol of illegal activity whose purpose is to expand the boundaries of the settlements without state approval. The message of the decision is clear - all illegal building [in the settlements] will be authorized, and the bosses in the territories are the local and regional council heads and the 'hillside youth,'" Oppenheimer said.
Efrat Mayor Oded Ravivi said: "The decision to approve, at this stage, construction of 40 residential units at Givat Hadagan in Efrat, Gush Etzion - which is in the heart of the consensus - is a good decision but far from sufficient. We congratulated Netanyahu for it but also explained that to solve Efrat's serious housing shortage the cabinet must approve 3,000 new homes."