Israel is promoting a plan to double the size of Har Gilo, a settlement just south of Jerusalem. The new satellite neighborhood is not slated to connect to the current settlement, and opponents of the plan argue the new neighborhood is in fact an entirely new settlement.
Additionally, the new neighborhood is planned on land that is considered sensitive, both in terms of the landscape and the climate, since it is described as a "buffer zone" of a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the agricultural terraces of the Palestinian village of Battir. On Sunday, the Supreme Planning Council in Judea and Samaria approved the widening of the road leading to Har Gilo, in what is considered the first stage in approving the plan to expand the settlement.
The new neighborhood, named Har Gilo Ma’arav (Mount Gilo West), will be erected on the other side of the Palestinian town of al-Walaja, next to Har Gilo.
The neighborhood, if built, will complete the encirclement of Walaja by fences. Today the village is surrounded on three sides by the separation barrier and a high fence that separates it from Har Gilo. With the construction of the new neighborhood, another seven-meter high fence is planned to be built between the new neighborhood and Walaja, and the village will be almost completely fenced off on all sides. The plan calls for 560 new housing units in the new neighborhood, the same number of units that exist today in Har Gilo.
In recent years, a number of political battles were fought in the area where the new settlement will be built. In 2015, the High Court of Justice froze a plan to build the separation fence on the Battir terraces, a decision made in part because of UNESCO's move to designate the ancient terraces as a World Heritage Site. The land where the new neighborhood is planned to be built is marked on UNESCO’s maps as a “buffer zone,” an area intended to protect the heritage site from an ecological, scenic and hydrological standpoint.
Another environmental battle is taking place over Reches Lavan on the other side of the Refa’im Stream (and the Green Line), where a large new neighborhood is planned that will turn it into part of Jerusalem. Another high-stakes plan in the area could see the construction of a large industrial zone for the Haredi city of Betar Ilit in the West Bank.
The residents of Walaja have been conducting a public and legal battle for years against the demolition of dozens of homes in the village. Walaja residents claim that while the ridges around the town have been covered with neighborhoods and settlements for Jews, the government refuses to allow them to build within the town, arguing that it is preferable to preserve the natural landscape and traditional agriculture.
Last week, the period to submit objections to the new neighborhood came to an end. Among those objecting were the organizations EcoPeace Middle East, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and a joint objection filed by Ir Amim, Bimkom and residents of Walaja. “We managed to preserve this amazing region from the construction of the fence and register it as a World Heritage Site, and now it is threatened from the north with an industrial zone, and from the south with the new neighborhood,” said Gidon Bromberg, the CEO of EcoPeace. "This site is no less important to Israelis than for the Palestinians, it is a shared historic site of humanity that tells the story about the development of agriculture on the hills.”
The objection submitted by the EcoPeace organization, through attorney Michael Sfard, states that “the damage that will be caused to the aforementioned site from the implementation of the Har Gilo Ma’arav neighborhood plan is enormous, and it seems even lethal, whether because of the direct damage it will cause or whether because of the indirect damage – or in other words, the domino effect of harming the community’s ability to conduct their unique agricultural culture that gave the site its uncommon values."
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The Society for the Protection of Nature charged that it is "not an expansion plan, but instead is a new community that is completely unconnected from the community it is supposed to expand."
The objection filed by Bimkom, Ir Amim and some residents of Walaja focused on the hardships the new neighborhood and the wall that comes with it will cause the village, which already suffers greatly from the home demolition policy, the separation fence and land expropriation. “The fact is especially grating that in this same space, on one hand, they are preventing development of the protected local population, while on the other hand, they are investment enormous resources for the development of new settlements for unknown residents who do not live there as the plan proposes,” states the objection.
On Sunday, the Supreme Planning Council approved upgrading and widening Route 385, which leads to Har Gilo. The widening of the road is intended to enable the construction of the new neighborhood, residents of Walaja and the left wing organizations say. In its decision, the planning council rejected claims raised by residents that argued the plan was not legal because the new road would serve only the settlers and not the Palestinian residents, and that this is forbidden according to international conventions and High Court of Justice rulings. In addition, a claim that the plan to widen the road was being advanced by the Gush Etzion Regional Council – even though the road is not at all in its jurisdiction – was rejected by the council.
The coordinator of government activities in the territories responded, “This plan was approved for deposit in the planning institutions in the Civil Administration, after it received comments from all the professional bodies. As for the plan, a number of objections were submitted – and they will be examined by the planning institutions as required according to the law. At the same time, the plan to expand the village of Walaja is being advanced, which was approved for deposit in January 2020.”