Israel backs housing project at Jerusalem’s Atarot airport under US pressure

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Israel’s Biden administration officials on Thursday said they had shelved a controversial plan to promote a massive housing project in Atarot in East Jerusalem, following a withdrawal from Washington, a senior Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The project, which received preliminary approval from Jerusalem’s local municipal planning committee earlier this week, would ensure that 9,000 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews were built on the abandoned site of the former Atarot airport. The area was annexed by Israel as part of the enlarged Jerusalem after 1967, but is beyond the Green Line.

The plan was removed from the agenda for a meeting on December 6 in the district committee for planning and building, under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance, the official said.

Following the approval of the Atarot plan by the local Jerusalem committee on Wednesday, US State Department officials reached out to Jerusalem to express their disapproval. Israeli officials tried to explain that the advancement was a preliminary step and that the final approval would take months, if not years, but Washington was not convinced, the Israeli official said.

The abandoned Atarot Airport is located directly south of the Palestinian district of Kafr Aqab in East Jerusalem. Although Kafr Aqab is beyond the security barrier, it is also part of Israeli-annexed Jerusalem.

The Atarot project had been frozen for over a decade, and even the Trump administration had pushed back Israel’s efforts to promote it. A plan by the previous Netanyahu government to build 4,000 homes in the area opposed the Trump administration, Walla’s news site reported on Thursday.

Related: The dizzying rise, the rapid fall and the planned radical change of Jerusalem airport

Kafr Aqab was specified in Trump’s plan for “Peace for Prosperity” as one of the areas in East Jerusalem that would be included in the “sovereign capital of the state of Palestine.” The European Union recently raised objections to the plan, in connection with its wider opposition to the coalition’s latest announcements on settlement expansion.

The abandoned Atarot Airport, north of Jerusalem, November 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Opponents of the project argue that it would hamper efforts to bring about a two-state solution by dividing a large part of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.

The possible revival of the Atarot project came as Israel is promote controversial construction projects in and around Jerusalem without making major announcements that could upset the Biden administration.

Last month, a local planning committee in Jerusalem approved the expropriation of public land for the controversial Givat HaMatos district, which critics say would largely cut off Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem from the southern West Bank.

The same committee put forward plans for the construction of 470 homes in the existing Pisgat Zeev area of ​​East Jerusalem.

A military body has meanwhile scheduled meetings to discuss a planned settlement of 3,400 homes on a barren slope outside Jerusalem known as E1. Critics say buildings in the area would effectively separate the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, making it impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel considers the whole of East Jerusalem as part of its undivided capital and says that they should be able to build there at their own discretion. But the majority of the international community has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and regards Jewish neighborhoods there as settlements.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank, territories that Israel conquered in the Six Day War that year and that the Palestinians want for their future state. Palestinians see the settlements and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem – which now house some 700,000 people – as a major obstacle to peace, and most of the international community consider them illegal.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has criticized settlement construction as an obstacle to eventually reviving the long-dead peace process, but has not called for a freeze. In 2010, an announcement approving the approval of approximately 1,600 ultra-Orthodox Jewish homes in another part of East Jerusalem during a visit by Biden, then vice president, exacerbated a diplomatic divide that grew during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settlement parties and the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is opposed to a Palestinian state. But he leads a difficult-to-manage coalition of parties from across the political spectrum – some opposed to settlements – and seems to be looking for a middle ground that would override the issue at home and abroad.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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