The government has allocated about 1,200 dunams (300 acres) for planning of a new neighborhood that would expand the settlement of Efrat toward Bethlehem, in an area considered particularly sensitive for diplomatic reasons.
The neighborhood is expected to expand the built-up area in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc up to the southern outskirts of the Palestinian city, in a manner that would surround Bethlehem with settlements.
The Civil Administration allocated the area to the Housing Ministry at the end of last month, a step that will enable the beginning of the active planning of the neighborhood called Givat Eitam (Eitam Hill). The hill is in Efrat’s area of jurisdiction, but on the eastern side of the separation barrier.
In 2013 the government tried to advance widespread construction in the territories, including several hundred residential units in Givat Eitam, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu torpedoed a similar plan due to international pressure.
About a year later, then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel tried to advance the expansion, but it was halted. In 2016 the government announced that a land survey had been conducted at the site for the purpose of creating a contiguous area of state land between the hill and Efrat. This step was taken in view of the plan to build on private land owned by a subsidiary of the KKL-Jewish National Fund on the hill.
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A petition against the planned construction on the site was submitted to the High Court of Justice by Peace Now. At the end of last month the state informed the High Court that an important stage had been carried out for advancing construction at the site: The area was allocated to the Housing Ministry for planning. After the conclusion of the allocation process, which takes a short time, the actual planning of a residential neighborhood at the site will begin.
In its announcement to the High Court, the State Prosecutor’s Office wrote: “Recently the intention of Respondent 2 (the custodian staff officer responsible for abandoned government property in Judea and Samaria) was formulated, with the knowledge of the political leadership, to enter a contract in a licensing agreement for planning with the Housing Ministry, regarding the state land in the settlement of Efrat that is at the center of the petition, for the purpose of planning a residential neighborhood. An announcement of this intention was published today, December 26, 2018, in the Bethlehem Coordination and Liaison Administration, and an announcement was sent to the Palestinian liaison.”
As a result, the government allocated a large area to the Housing Ministry for the purpose of planning the neighborhood – 1,182.5 dunams on the hill. The planning license is scheduled to take effect within 30 days from the date of publication of the announcement on December 26.
The head of the Settlement Watch team in Peace Now, Shabtay Bendet, said, “The government is crossing a red line in advancing a new settlement in E2, which is likely to be a lethal blow to the chance of peace and a two-state solution. The Netanyahu government is carrying out a dangerous and underhanded step in order to avoid public criticism in Israel and worldwide – it is no coincidence that this was done immediately after the announcement of the election, when public attention in Israel is directed at political developments and during the Christmas holiday, when the entire Christian world is on vacation.”
The Efrat local council built a small outpost between two buildings on the hill last September. The illegal outpost served as a kind of statement of the council’s intentions. A residential neighborhood at the site is expected to include several hundred housing units.