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Palestinians alarmed by Israel settlement plan on Jerusalem airport

Israel's Greater Jerusalem Project is taking shape with the construction of thousands of new settlement units on the land of Jerusalem airport, setting off alarm bells with the Palestinians.
A general view shows a section of Israel's controversial separation wall near Qalandia crossing between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Israel-annexed East Jerusalem. The tarmac of the former Atarot airport, which has been closed to civilian traffic since the breakout of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, can be seen in the center, July 28, 2016.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel is promoting the construction of more than 9,000 new settlement units on the land of Jerusalem airport, or what is known as Qalandia Airport or Atarot Airport. The project is part of a settlement plan that is the largest of its kind in the West Bank in decades.

The Jerusalem municipality is promoting the project and executing the infrastructure works for the next steps. The project is expected to bite off Jerusalem International Airport, which was seized by Israel when it took control of the West Bank in 1967.

Neither the Hebrew media nor the Israeli authorities published new details about the project, except for what was reported Oct. 4 by the Israeli Channel 13 about the Jerusalem municipality promoting the project. Channel 13 did not go into more details.

Jerusalem International Airport is the only airport in the West Bank. It was established in 1920. Four years later, the British Mandate authorities started using it for their planes. In 1936, it was opened to public flights, but with Israel’s control over it in 1967, Israeli airlines used it for commercial and domestic flights to and from Jerusalem until they closed it permanently in 2000, turning it into an abandoned site.

The new settlement project may be the most dangerous project in the West Bank since its occupation, at the political and geographical level. It falls within the Jerusalem 2050 program.

Khalil Tufakji, head of the cartography department at Jerusalem’s Arab Studies Society, told Al-Monitor that Israel seeks to achieve three long-term strategic goals through the new settlement project.

He explained, “The project aims to demolish the Jerusalem airport thereby destroying the Palestinians’ dream of seeing Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Israel is opening a huge tunnel in the area to connect the planned settlement to the outposts outside the Jerusalem municipality. This is part of an Israeli plan known as the Greater Jerusalem Project that aims to control 10% of the West Bank.”

The third goal is the establishment of a huge settlement bloc in the northern area of ​​Jerusalem, separating the city from the Palestinian communities, Tufakji said. “Around 150,000 Palestinians residing in the area will be forced out of their homes and 150,000 Israelis will be brought into the city. This will create a demographic change in favor of Israel, which seeks to turn the city into 88% Israelis and 12% Palestinians,” he noted.

Tufakji pointed out that the settlement will be built on an area of ​​1,200 dunams (296 acres). He added, “The Israeli government has begun infrastructure works to impose a fait accompli, taking advantage of the favorable international circumstances. Israel sees Jerusalem as its capital and does not accept sharing it with the Palestinians.”

On Aug. 8, the Israeli organization Peace Now published a report on the project. It explained that Israel believes “most of the [settlement] plan counts as state lands since the days of the British Mandate when an airport was built in it. This fact enables Israel to build the settlement without the need to confiscate lands from their Palestinian owners. At the same time, large parts of the land count as private land.”

It continued, “It should be noted that the plan aims to demolish several buildings and Palestinian housing units that have been built in the area over the years.”

“The plan was meant to sever the Palestinian continuity and become an Israeli enclave which would prevent Palestinian development of the most central and important metropolis in the future Palestinian state,” Peace Now noted. “This is a very dangerous plan which might bring a dangerous blow to the two-state solution,” it warned.

Peace Now noted that the Jerusalem airport settlement “will be the first new settlement in East Jerusalem since Netanyahu's government built the Har Homa settlement” on Mount Abu Ghneim in Jerusalem in 1997. It called on the Israeli government to remove the plan from its agenda immediately and shelve it.

Suhail Khaliliah, director of the Settlement Monitoring Unit at the Applied Research Institute ARIJ, a nongovernmental organization, told Al-Monitor that the Jerusalem airport settlement project is not new. The idea dates back to 2004, when the initial plans were presented to him.

“Execution has been disrupted during the past years as a result of international pressures, but the idea of ​​the project has remained on the table of successive Israeli governments as it falls within the Greater Jerusalem project,” he said.

He pointed out that the project is not limited to building housing units. “This project consolidates Israel's control over Jerusalem in its new form under the Greater Jerusalem project. This settlement is an important part of that project from the north and northwest sides of the city of Jerusalem,” he added.

Khaliliah said that Israel drew up plans for settlement projects in Jerusalem years ago, but now they are being implemented in line with the integrated settlement project. He explained, “This consists of three elements. The first is building settlement housing units. The second is building bypass streets around Jerusalem that has been witnessing development in the last decade. The third element is building industrial areas. The Jerusalem airport settlement will also include the Atarot industrial zone, which will be developed into a huge commercial industrial zone to attract settlers.” 

Khaliliah noted that the initial plan for the settlement consisted of building 10,000 housing units, to which another 4,000 units can be added. “This means accommodating about 40,000 settlers in the first construction phase, leading to more than 60,000 settlers in the final phase. This will induce a geographical and demographic change in the city of Jerusalem,” he said.

He warned that this settlement project is the latest Israeli blow to the two-state solution, pointing out that the Israeli settlement policy has been dealing dozens of blows to the two-state solution since the Oslo Accord.

Khaliliah indicated that Israel began preparing the infrastructure for the project four years ago. “It laid the foundation for the water and electricity networks, and is currently preparing to construct a tunnel. The engineering plans and construction details are ready,” he said.

He concluded, “Starting work only requires a final decision to be issued by the Israeli Ministry of Interior and Housing. This is mostly a political decision. With the presence of a minister like Ayelet Shaked at the head of the Ministry of Interior, this decision is expected to be issued very soon.”

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