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Israel’s Ministry of Housing and Construction (run by Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel, who lives in a West Bank settlement) published tenders last week for 20,000 new settlements units, including a tender to build 1,200 units in the southern part of the highly controversial E-1 area, Haaretz (Hebrew) reported Tuesday. According to Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson, the tenders call for construction in 23 settlements, the largest scope in the last decade, at a cost of NIS 50 million.
Just minutes after the report came out, Haaretz followed up with the news that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the housing minister to immediately halt any constructions plans for E-1, a move that proves just how sensitive and controversial this area is.
E-1 (derived from “East 1”) is a term applied by the Housing Ministry to the area located just east of the Jerusalem municipal boundary, on the hills between the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement and Jerusalem. The area borders on the Palestinian towns of Anata, Abu Dis, Azariya and A-Zayim. E-1, which covers some 12,000 dunams (12 sq. kilometers), is part of the Ma’aleh Adumim jurisdiction area.
The reason E-1 is so sensitive is because it is the main artery between the northern and southern West Bank. According to a report by Ir Amim, a non-profit focusing on the occupation’s effects on Jerusalem:
Israeli control of the E-1 area would prevent any option of developing Palestinian portions of East Jerusalem and create a barrier between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, precluding the possibility of its functioning as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Since 2004, strong American intervention during the Bush administration has prevented construction in E-1. It is also the site of the Palestinian protest village Bab al-Shams, set up at the start of 2013 to oppose the government’s announcement to build 4,000 housing units in the area, in response to the Palestinian UN statehood bid.
The fact that Netanyahu ordered an immediate halt to any construction in E-1 is proof that:
1. He is aware that the U.S. considers it the last nail in the two-state coffin that clearly indicates Israel is unwilling and uninterested in negotiations with Palestinians that would lead to a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as its capital.
2. He is trying to avoid any more criticism from Kerry, amid the already high tensions between them surrounding both settlement construction and Iran nuclear talks.
UPDATE: According to Haaretz, the State Deptartment has issued a statement demanding clarification and insisting it does not “recognize legitimacy of settlements.” If that’s true, why hasn’t the Obama administration made a halt to settlements a prerequisite for continued negotiations? Why doesn’t the move clearly show that Israel is not a partner in peace?
UPDATE: Netanyahu has ordered Housing and Construction Minister Ariel to reconsider plans to build the 20,000 units. According to a government press release:
This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement. This is a meaningless step – legally and in practice – and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran. At this time, the attention of the international community must not be diverted from the main effort – preventing Iran from receiving an agreement that will allow it to continue its military nuclear program. As a member of the Government, action must be coordinated and have the benefit of forethought.
Minister Ariel told Netanyahu that he would accede to his request.