Freezing Settlement Plan Epitomizes United Jerusalem's Failures

The construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, now on hold, shows the twisted priorities of state planners, who are concerned less with serving residents than shifting Israel's demographic balance

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The abandoned Atarot Airport in Jerusalem.
The abandoned Atarot Airport in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The area around the Qalandiya Checkpoint in northern Jerusalem may well be the ugliest place in the city. It’s a jumble of huge concrete walls, observation towers, guard posts, fences, cameras and unbelievable amounts of trash piled up everywhere.

The checkpoint and the nearby abandoned Atarot airport are in the heart of a Palestinian section of the city, surrounded by the neighborhoods of Beit Hanina, A-Ram, Kafr Aqab and Qalandiya. The airport is just 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) from central Ramallah and more than twice that distance from central Jerusalem.

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But none of the above was mentioned Monday at a lengthy session of the regional planning and building committee, devoted to constructing a new Jewish neighborhood at the abandoned airport. The discussion, as is typical of such meetings, was saturated with architectural details – bicycle paths, green areas and transportation systems.

Amid all these details, the big picture got lost – the construction of a large Jewish neighborhood on the other side of the Green Line, in territory that not one single country aside from Israel recognizes as sovereign Israeli territory.

This meeting epitomized the planning failures of united Jerusalem since 1967. Decision makers don’t see the city as a place where planning and building should benefit local residents, but as a geopolitical chessboard where building is essential to create buffers between two Palestinian neighborhoods, preserve a Jewish majority or thwart diplomatic plans to divide the city. They also work to prevent the establishment of new Palestinian neighborhoods.

The unsurprising result is an enormous, unmanageable city with huge gaps between its eastern and western parts.

Palestinians at Qalandiya checkpoint, in northern Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Anyone seeking further proof of Israel’s blindness toward almost half the city's residents can find it in the decision made at the end of the meeting: to postpone approving the plan while an environmental impact study is done. Yet nobody ever thought of conducting a study or doing anything at all to address the area’s environmental hazards for the sake of its tens of thousands of Palestinian residents, most of whom are Israeli citizens or permanent residents.

Officials from the environmental protection and health ministries were the ones who demanded the study. This may have been because both ministries are headed by members of the left-wing Meretz party.

But another, no less reasonable possibility is that the Prime Minister’s Office worked behind the scenes to delay the plan to avoid setting off a diplomatic landmine with the Biden administration. Right now, Israel needs to save its diplomatic capital in Washington for more important issues.

Nevertheless, the planning committee rejected a proposal by Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige to scrap the plan and instead consider reopening the airport as a joint Israeli-Palestinian venture. Freige spoke of the airport as a national strategic asset that also offers an opportunity with the Palestinians.

The state’s planning institutions and planning documents observe a kind of behavioral code. For instance, it’s impossible to explicitly state which community a neighborhood is intended for: Arab or Jewish, ultra-Orthodox or secular. But one needn’t be a detective nor an architect to reasonably guess which community the plan is intended for, based on the documents and discussions.

At Atarot, the answer is obvious. The planners, on orders from Jerusalem’s municipal planning committee, prepared an outline for low-rise construction, no more than nine stories, with balconies where people can build sukkahs. They earmarked lots for synagogues and mikvehs and even one for generators in case the community wants to disconnect from the electricity grid on Shabbat – a practice only found among the ultra-Orthodox.

When some committee members pointed out that secular Jews also suffer from a housing shortage, Deputy Mayor Yaakov Halperin of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Yisrael party replied, “Ultra-Orthodox or not ultra-Orthodox, the important thing is that it’s Jewish.” That might be a crude – some would say racist – way of putting it, but it accurately sums up both the discussion and the planning documents.

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