Israel Pushing Plan to Expand Settlement Toward Bethlehem, Isolating West Bank Village

The plan would create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which is adjacent to Bethlehem

The Palestinian village of Al-Walaja, West Bank, 2016.
Emil Salman

Planning agencies recently approved two decisions that could create an unbroken stretch of Jewish construction from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the West Bank.

The decisions could also isolate the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja from the West Bank by sandwiching it between the settlement of Har Gilo and the fence that separates Israel from the West Bank.

In late March, the Gush Etzion Regional Council’s planning committee approved a plan to almost double Har Gilo from its current 400 families. The plan calls for building 330 new homes, as well as public buildings, a gas station, parks and other amenities.

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The plan is still in its preliminary stages. But if it is ever actually implemented, Har Gilo, which already hems Al-Walaja in from the southeast, would hem it in from the southwest as well. To the north, the village is hemmed in by the separation barrier.

Har Gilo

The plan would also create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which is adjacent to Bethlehem.

And just last week, the Jerusalem district planning committee’s subcommittee for defense facilities made a separate decision that also moves Jerusalem closer to Gush Etzion and helps turn Al-Walaja into an enclave.

The subcommittee approved relocating the Ein Yael checkpoint from its current location, near Jerusalem’s southern entrance, to beyond the Ein Haniya spring. The decision is meant to prevent Palestinians from visiting Ein Haniya, which is due to open next week as the main attraction of Jerusalem’s Metropolitan Park. But the new checkpoint will be located not far from the site proposed for Har Gilo’s new homes.

“Har Gilo’s expansion and the checkpoint’s relocation give us an opportunity to see the true significance of the greater Jerusalem plan,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the group Ir Amim, which promotes Jewish-Arab equality in Jerusalem.

“The expansion will create contiguity between Jerusalem and the settlements near Bethlehem, and also strangle Al-Walaja. These are two sides of the same coin,” he added.

“The situation in which Israel chooses to expand settlements in a way meant to perpetuate its control over millions of Palestinians without citizenship cannot be sustainable. But when the day we finally understand this arrives, the price of fixing it will be much higher.”

The Har Gilo plan still requires approval from Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. Planning officials said it has been forwarded to the administration, but the administration hasn’t yet looked at it. Consequently, they couldn’t predict when, if ever, the plan would advance. But in any case, they said, it won’t advance without a green light from the government.

Minutes from the Gush Etzion Regional Council’s planning committee show that at the meeting where the Har Gilo plan was approved, council members warned that the settlement’s infrastructure was insufficient even for its current population. Therefore, they said, no new homes should be built without addressing this problem. In the end, the planning committee approved the plan “subject to coordination” with Har Gilo’s local council.

Implementing the plan would require rezoning state lands from agricultural use to residential construction and other uses. In addition, the plan must still be approved by Civil Administration officials, the administration’s Supreme Planning Council and the council’s subcommittee on settlements – a process that takes months at best and usually much longer.

Essentially, therefore, the March decision was no more than a declaration of intent. But in principle, it is feasible because the land in question is state land.

Ein Haniya, in contrast, was officially inaugurated about six months ago, though it closed immediately afterward due to a financial dispute between the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Jerusalem Development Authority over who would pay for its operation. Recently, however, the two agencies finally agreed to open the site – which contains an ancient pool, gardens and archaeological findings – and split the cost.

The police had insisted that before the site opens, the Ein Yael checkpoint should be moved about 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) westward, closer to Har Gilo and Al-Walaja. The checkpoint’s current location allows Palestinians from the West Bank to visit Ein Haniya freely, whereas the new location will prevent them from visiting the site.

Work began on moving the checkpoint even before the necessary permits had been obtained, but a court order halted it. Last week, however, the subcommittee on defense facilities finally approved the relocation, so the work can now resume and is expected to be finished shortly.

The Har Gilo expansion plan and the relocated checkpoint are just the latest moves designed to create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. The most notable was last year’s opening of the Rosemary Junction, which connects Jerusalem’s main artery, the Begin Highway, to Route 60, which is the West Bank’s main north-south artery and the road on which Gush Etzion lies.

The new junction has made it significantly easier for residents of Gush Etzion, Efrat and the South Hebron Hills settlements to reach the capital, because it eliminated the traffic jams at Jerusalem’s southern entrance and gave them direct access to Begin Highway.