'New' West Bank Settlement Permits Not So New

By Chaim Levinson (Haaretz)

Published September 08, 2009.
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At the West Bank city of Ariel’s adventure park, whose construction Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved, nothing special was going on yesterday. Children were trying out the climbing wall and the mayor was walking around, proud as a groom on his wedding day. The facility was actually only approved yesterday, but has been in existence for a year and a half before receiving construction permits. In fact, a demolition order was issued against it.

Haaretz checked and discovered that these permits, are no more than another layer of permits on top of those already given, but that had not gone through for various reasons. In some places work was already underway. Haaretz has also learned that all construction permits were given on condition that the buildings go up within two months, or the permit will be rescinded.

The adventure park in Ariel is only one of the approvals Barak gave yesterday. The total number of new building starts approved yesterday in West Bank Jewish settlements is 455, mainly in the settlement blocs: 149 units in Har Gilo and 12 units in Alon Shvut - both in the Etzion Bloc, 84 units in Modi’in Ilit, 76 units in the Agan Ha’ayalot neighborhood of Givat Ze’ev, 89 units in Ma’aleh Adumim and 25 units in the nearby settlement of Kedar. The construction of 20 new units was approved for Maskiot in the Jordan Valley, the only settlement not in one of the large settlement blocs. Barak also approved public projects, like the adventure park in Ariel and a new school in Har Adar.

Yesterday, bulldozers were filling trucks with sand to level lot after lot in Har Gilo. The plan to add 234 units to the settlement, first established in 1968, was approved in 1999. Former defense minister Shaul Mofaz approved the construction of 34 units, and during Olmert’s tenure 55 more units were approved. In 2008, Olmert approved another 149 units and Barak did not add to this number. Work had already begun, with Barak’s approval yesterday of the 149 units coming on top of Olmert’s earlier approval.

Kedar has an approved plan from 1989 for the construction of 260 units. Two years ago, the community asked for permission to market another 34 units. Approval came for 17, but it was not worthwhile for the local council to lay infrastructure for such a small number of units. Yesterday, Barak approved 25 more units.

In Alon Shvut, construction was approved in a neighborhood built 15 years ago in the center of the community. At the time, permits were issued for four buildings of 12 apartments each. For unknown reasons, only three were built. For three years the local council has been seeking permission to build the fourth apartment house, which it has now received.

Shaul Goldstein, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, said yesterday: We thank the government for approving continued construction. However the demand is at least ten times more than the permits. We are against the very term ‘freeze,’ because construction is not an obstacle to peace.”

Construction began in 2000 on 600 housing units in the Agan Ha’ayalot neighborhood of Givat Ze’ev. In 2002, the intifada and shooting attacks brought about an end to sales, and the apartments remained unfinished. The contractors sued the government and the case is still in court.

In 2008, a group of ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs took over the project, and the Olmert government approved construction of 330 of the apartments, although only 250 were actually built. The government has now approved an additional 76.

Council head Yossi Avrahami said yesterday: “I have been given a permit on top of Olmert’s permit for a plan that had already been approved. This permit is foolishness.”

In the Jordan Valley settlement of Maskiot, founded as a Nahal outpost by the Israel Defense Forces, Barak announced 20 new homes would be built. But work has been going on there since July 2008, when the construction of the 20 units was first approved. Yesterday he gave final approval, which means the houses can actually be put up.

The head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, David Alhiani, said yesterday: “The fact is, these apartments were approved last year, otherwise we wouldn’t have begun the infrastructure. How apartments that have already been approved and have begun to be built are approved again, you should ask the defense minister, not me.”

In Ma’aleh Adumim, 89 units were approved yesterday in the Nofei Sela neighborhood. The area has had permission to build 3,000 homes for five years now. The Housing Ministry was issuing tenders little by little, but stopped two years ago. Now 89 units have been approved in an area slated for 300 units. Some 9,100 families live in Ma’aleh Adumim, and the new construction will increase the population by less than one percent. Mayor Benny Kashriel called the approval, a “poor man’s feast.”

In the ultra-Orthodox city of Modi’in Ilit, 84 housing units were approved. They had originally been approved long before, in the midst of an existing neighborhood, but the old plan was never implemented due to a legal battle between the city and the neighboring settlement of Matityahu. All in all, three new buildings are to be constructed in Modi’in Ilit.

“After the new building permits, we are continuing toward a freeze on construction in settlements in the West Bank for a few months,” a senior official said yesterday in Jerusalem.

The official also said that American envoy George Mitchell and the U.S. administration have been informed of the approvals for the new construction, and that “it was not done behind their backs.” According to the official, this is the first time since the establishment of the Netanyahu government that construction has been unfrozen. The source added that over the past six months only a few permits have been given, and even the present ones are to complete ongoing projects and to approve tenders discussed in the past.

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