Jerusalem Construction Plans Raise Ire of Arabs, Rightists - and Judge

Netanyahu slammed for approving on-again-off-again housing plans for Jews and Arabs in diplomatically sensitive area, and for legal and bureaucratic foot-dragging.

The Givat Hamatos neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, on July 4, 2016.
Thomas Coex/AFP

The Prime Minister’s Office has announced government approval of a plan to build 600 apartments for Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos neighborhood. At the same time, on Sunday, it announced construction of some 800 apartments for Jews in the city and in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

These announcements were presented Sunday as part of the government’s response to last week’s deadly terror attacks. But in fact, in a brief submitted on the state’s behalf a few days before the attacks – in response to a petition – the Jerusalem District Court had been informed that the plan for the Arab neighborhood was likely to be approved in the coming days.

Initially, two plans for construction in the vicinity of Givat Hamatos, in southern Jerusalem, had been advancing in tandem – one for a new Jewish neighborhood there, and the other for expansion of the Arab locale of Beit Safafa, which actually borders on Givat Hamatos but is considered by some authorities to be part of it.

However, the plan that calls for building new housing for Jews is considered to be very sensitive, in diplomatic terms, because it would mean that Beit Safafa would be surrounded on all sides by Jewish neighborhoods, which in turn would make any future division of the city much harder. Consequently, that initiative is currently on ice.

Some time ago, however, the construction scheme for the Arab community was also frozen – with no explanation. Beit Safafa’s community administrator then petitioned the Jerusalem District Court, asking that the plan be unfrozen.

In its response to the petition, the state said implementation of the plan had been delayed due to governmental considerations about which it couldn’t elaborate to the petitioners. It therefore sought the court’s permission to submit its explanation in the form of a classified affidavit that would be seen only by the judge.

But about six weeks ago, Judge Moshe Sobel rejected that request and demanded that the state explain the freeze in an open court session. He also hinted that he would not look favorably on any explanations that were not related to planning considerations.

The government was supposed to submit its response last week. But instead, the state prosecution requested a postponement, claiming that the case “has been brought before the attorney general, who has decided to deal with the matter himself. Moreover, at this time, the government is already examining various possibilities in an effort to settle the petition without the need for a judicial decision.”

Attorney Mohannad Gbara, who represents Beit Safafa, said that “with all due respect, it should be clear that the construction was essentially forced upon the government by the petition. The plan was frozen for more than two years, but after their basic arguments didn’t hold up and the judge wouldn’t let them submit a classified affidavit and it was clear that he would have granted the petition – only then was the government effectively forced to agree to approving the plan.

“The prime minister, like a good politician, wrapped it all up in the approval of a plan for Jews following the recent incidents, as if he were embarrassed by the approval of a plan for Palestinians,” Gbara continued. “One would have expected the 'prime minister of everyone' to have said that Beit Safafa, too, deserves to get more housing – and not just as a counter-measure to construction for the Jews.”

In addition to Gbara's charges, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under criticism on Sunday from the right for having approved the Beit Safafa scheme. In particular, Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) charged that “building for Arabs without building for Jews will create Palestinian contiguity from Bethlehem to Malha. It will divide Jerusalem and separate between its parts.”

“Givat Hamatos is a strategic point for Jerusalem’s future,” Bennett added. “Givat Hamatos will determine the [territorial] integrity of Jerusalem. The world has a goal of establishing Palestinian contiguity from Bethlehem through Beit Jala, Givat Hamatos and Beit Safafa to the Malha Mall. What we want, though, is exactly the opposite: We want to establish contiguity from Talpiot to Gilo in order to keep Jerusalem united.”

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud) and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also criticized Netanyahu for approving the plan.