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With peace talks underway || Israel planning to construct some 20,000 housing units in West Bank

The original plan included contsruction in the controversial  E1 area, which links Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, but on Tuesday, Netanyahu called a halt to all construction there.

by Chaim Levinson, Barak Ravid and Jonathan Lis       12 November 2013      Haaretz

Settler in E-1

A Jewish settler looking at the West bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Photo by AP

The Housing Ministry has issued a tender to hire an architect to plan the construction of 1,200 housing units in the E1 area, which links Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim in the West Bank, as part of a larger wave of tenders to construct some 20,000 housing units in the West Bank at a cost of nearly $13 million (NIS 45 million).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was updated on the plan earlier Tuesday and shortly afterward ordered to freeze all construction plans in the E1 area. Officials in Netanyahu's office told Housing Minister Uri Ariel that he must immediately halt the tender for selecting an architect to plan the project in E1.

The broader plan of some 20,000 housing units encompasses several urban areas, as well as the Binyamin Regional Council and Gush Etzion. This is an unusually large number of tenders, unprecedented in the last decade. The tenders are for planning only - some are skeleton plans, some constitute general urban building schemes and others, detailed urban building schemes.

The most sensitive location where the housing minister planned to build, and Netanyahu now froze, is the E1 neighborhood adjacent to Ma’aleh Adumim. The Americans vetoed construction there in the past. In 2012, following the UN’s acceptance of the Palestinians’ request for non-member observer status, the Israeli government announced its approval of the construction of housing units in E1. The Civil Administration’s Planning Council held a meeting about the plan, and since then another order was issued to suspend it. The architect, who is yet to be chosen, was slated to receive $700,00 (NIS 2.5 million) for the detailed planning of 1,200 housing units totaling an area of 144,000 square meters, and will fit the plan to E1’s comprehensive plan. Other architects have been hired in the Ma’aleh Adumim area to plan 2,500 housing units in two areas at a cost of nearly $1.5 million (NIS 5.2 million) to taxpayers.

Another sensitive area is Givat Ha’eitam in Efrat, which is on the eastern side of the separation barrier. In the past, the settlers were given approval to establish a farm there on land owned by the Jewish National Fund.  Now, the Housing Ministry is planning 840 housing units there.

Yet another place where massive construction is being planned is a group of hills in Gush Etzion under the jurisdiction of Alon Shvut. The location was established in 1984 as a Nahal outpost, and made into a residential area in 1997. In 2012, Ehud Barak allowed the construction of a youth village for young people with special needs. According to Housing Minister Ariel, the youth village is slated to become a residential area for 1,000 people. The architect will receive NIS 2.5 million for drawing up the plans.

In addition, a new master plan costing NIS 5 million is planned for Gush Etzion - to add 160 housing units to the failing settlement of Meitzad and 300 to Bat Ayin, some of which constitutes approval of illegal construction after the fact. The outpost of Ibei Nahal is supposed to become a settlement of 250 housing units, and Tekoa is supposed to expand by 1,100 housing units in several areas.

Another 5,000 housing units are planned for Kochav Ya’akov in the Binyamin Regional Council. Evidently, this is saturation construction in the nearby Haredi settlement of Tel Tzion. Construction of 1,250 housing units is planned for Shilo at a cost of NIS 3.2 million. Construction of 2,800 housing units is planned for the nearby settlement of Eli, part of which is the authorization, after the fact, of 700 existing housing units. The rest are new. Mizpe Yeriho will expand by 1,000 housing units, and Shvut Rahel will go from 100 to 1000. The total cost of the planned construction for the Binyamin Regional Council is NIS 23 million.

E1 has an area of 12 square kilometers (for the sake of comparison: Ramat Gan has an area of 13 square kilometers, and Lod an area of roughly 12) that spreads out to the north and west of the city of Ma’aleh Adumim. From a municipal standpoint, the land belongs to the Ma’aleh Adumim municipality. The area has a general overall plan from which five more overall plans are derived: two for housing, industry, hotels and a water reservoir known as Ketef Tzofim.

According to the overall housing plan, 1,250 housing units are planned for the southern section of the area, and 2,400 for its eastern section. The industrial zone is planned for an area of 1,340 dunams. The hotel plan includes the construction of dozens of hotels with a total of 2,152 rooms and 260 more housing units. In the past, Israel had begun preparing the land for the southern plan of 1,250 housing units; roads and infrastructure were built and a police station was constructed at the top of the hill, but American pressure stalled the plans.

All the various plans are stuck in the planning institutions. When Palestine was accepted to the UN as a non-member observer, the prime minister announced that the construction plans would be carried out. The plan was made public so that anyone opposed to it might state his case, but nothing has been done with it since.

Labor Party chief and opposition head Shelly Yacimovich criticized Netanyahu's government on Monday for holding peace negotiations while at the same time" doing everything to make clear to the world that Israel has no real intentions of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, but rather to continue to manage the conflict."

Yair Oppenheimer, the director of Peace Now, said, “The talks are only for show. Behind the scenes, the government plans to destroy all chance of the two-state solution and flood the area with new settlements. The issue of the tenders is unequivocal evidence of Netanyahu’s intention of sabotaging the chances for an agreement.”

Meretz chair Zahava Gal-On welcomed Netanyahu's decision on Monday, but crticized the fact that he was "simultaneously authorizing construction in other settlements."

Gal-On added that construction in E1 would put an end to negotiations with the Palestinians, "ignite the situation on the ground and further undermine Israel-U.S. relations. It is time for Netanyahu to rein in the ministers in his government who time and time again are trying to derail political negotiations."