The Israeli government’s announcement this week that 3,500 new homes would be built in the West Bank to bridge the gap between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Maale Adumim is being seen as fulfilling the Sharon government’s goal of strengthening its hold on that area.
“It’s in line with [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s vision of making permanent the settlements around Jerusalem on the West Bank,” said Asher Arian, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. “The timing of the announcement certainly isn’t surprising. It has to do with the budget discussions, the proposed referendum and the preparations for the [Gaza] separation.”
Asked if he expected new homes to eventually fill in the entire gap between East Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, a community of 30,000 to the east, Arian said: “I don’t know if it will all become an urban area, but as housing expands the anticipation is that it will remain part of any final settlement.”
In reporting the housing expansion, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot said Sharon ordered the construction last week under proposals to cement Israel’s hold on “greater Jerusalem.”
Benny Kashriel, the mayor of Maale Adumim, said his city is built on land “given to us in 1994 by [then-Prime Minister Yitzchak] Rabin after the Oslo agreement. He said, ‘Greater Jerusalem is out of the negotiations, and he even came to Maale Adumim and said it again and again.”
Kashriel stressed that the new homes would be built within the municipal boundaries of his city, and noted that even one Palestinian negotiator, Yasir Abed Rabo, envisioned Maale Adumim as remaining under Israeli control in a final settlement.
“The eastern approach to Jerusalem is very important strategically,” Kashriel explained. “We are guarding this road east toward the Jordan Valley and south toward Eilat.”
Asked about the impact of the new housing on the peace process, he said: “Nothing has happened yet. If nothing has happened yet, Israel doesn’t owe anything to the Palestinians. Until this morning, the children in the Gaza Strip are learning that Israel is part of the greater Palestinian state.”
Kashriel said that Maale Adumim “will not be the main point to disturb the peace negotiations. Do we have to satisfy the Palestinians all the time? They have to know that if they want a state, they have to compromise, too.”
As expected, Palestinian reaction was swift in its condemnation.
“It’s very outrageous,” said Said Zeedani, a Palestinian political analyst. “It’s inconsistent with the commitments of the Israelis under the ‘road map.’ But more important, this area makes the whole issue of the contiguous Palestinian state more problematic. If you can’t move through Jerusalem to the southern West Bank, then how can it be contiguous to the center and the north? How can Palestinians get to Hebron and Bethlehem?”
“The whole peace process becomes more vulnerable,” he added, “because … if this settlement activity continues, the agreements will be much less credible.”
A Palestinian negotiator said the expansion of Maale Adumim was aimed at dictating the future borders between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Maale Adumim was built where it was because it’s an anchor settlement,” he said. “It was built to redefine the boundaries of an expanded Jerusalem. … Basically what this construction is all about is that Israel’s strategy has been to take as much land as possible while taking as few Palestinians as possible.”
Israeli government sources were quoted as saying that Sharon has also ordered the construction of a new highway to bypass the area and link the Palestinian-ruled cities to the north and south of Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
“The prime minister is thinking ahead to giving the Palestinians territorial contiguity,” the government source said.
President George W. Bush has insisted that a Palestinian state on the West Bank have territorial contiguity. Although the international road map to peace endorsed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority calls for an end to settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Bush in a letter to Sharon last year said Israel could be expected to keep some West Bank settlement blocs in any final peace accord. The Bush administration also suggested that Israel would get the green light to increase the population of those settlements as long as they did not expand the territory they encompassed.
The announcement of the 3,500 new homes was greeted with skepticism by Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion in the West Bank. Goldstein said he would believe it when he sees it, and pointed out that the Bush administration is asking Israel to “clarify” the expansion plans.
Adam Ereli, a deputy State Department spokesman, said two American envoys visiting Israel this week would make it clear that “there needs to be an end to settlement activity.”
“We are opposed to unilateral acts by either side that create facts on the ground and that have the results of prejudging issues that are to be settled through negotiations between the parties,” Ereli said.
Bush and Sharon are expected to discuss the expansion plans when they meet next month at Bush’s ranch in Texas.
Goldstein said Sharon, who was a champion of the settler movement, has disappointed settlers with his decisions to withdraw all Israelis from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements, and to “exclude many communities” that could have been placed within the security barrier now under construction.
“We don’t believe a word he says,” Goldstein said of Sharon. “He is saying this [the expansion plans] just to maintain quiet. But we know the truth.”
Goldstein said his organization is not behind the street demonstrations that tied up traffic this week near Netanya and elsewhere. The demonstrators, who are protesting the planned Gaza withdrawal, are “showing the world that it is not that easy to uproot Jews.”
“It has caused a lot of anger in those whose lives are being uprooted,” Goldstein said of the withdrawal plans. “But I’m not sure these demonstrations will bring benefit to our cause.”
He pointed out that a new law went into effect last week that makes it a crime to move to the Gaza Strip, and he said that after Passover no one would be allowed to even travel there for fear of complicating the withdrawal process.
“What you will have is an explosion because people will want to come there from all over the world, and if they can’t they will be very upset,” Goldstein said. “I’m not predicting a civil war, but people will not believe in each other anymore and will not want to share future challenges, will not want to join the army and become officers.
“The prime minister is ignorant and arrogant. He doesn’t listen to anyone or talk to anyone and he thinks that wiping off those communities is like pressing the delete button on a computer. … I’m afraid there is going to be a disaster, even though there may be no violence.”
There were also reports this week that Sharon is planning to expand the West Bank settlements of Gush Etzion and Ariel. Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, said he had not heard those reports but pointed out that his city of 18,000 has plans to expand to 60,000 within its existing borders.
“Everything will be legal and correct,” he said, adding that the planned expansion of Maale Adumim was always anticipated.
“There is no news in that,” he said. “I don’t see why every time there should be a new item in the news [about it]. So they [the Americans] will look at it. So what? I’m not concerned.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Josh Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.