Biden Admin’s Reluctance to Spend Geopolitical Capital Greenlights Israeli Settlement Push

“No U.S. administration wants to be perceived as picking 10 fights every day with Israel, even if Israel is engaging every day in 10 things that really demand a response from the U.S.” – Lara Friedman, Foundation for Middle East Peace

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM — Last week, Israel bowed to American pressure and scrapped the controversial Atarot settlement in the Palestinian neighborhood of Qalandiya just north of Jerusalem. But on the heels of that decision, the state advanced another Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods along Jerusalem’s southern tip, even as the residents there are grappling with a severe housing shortage.

The plan is to develop a new neighborhood called Givat HaShaked on land extending beyond the Green Line (Israel’s de facto border before the 1967 War, which saw it occupy East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) and adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa in Occupied East Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, the Jerusalem municipality’s Planning and Building Committee recommended the development plan for deposit, meaning it will now head to the Jerusalem District Planning Committee, which will decide whether to deposit the plan for objections or public review. The project calls for the construction of 473 homes, schools and synagogues to be built on about nine acres of open land.

During Wednesday’s committee hearing, Israel’s Custodian General, the authority within the Justice Ministry overseeing properties whose owners are unknown, was represented by its economic unit director, Hananel Gurfinkel. Gurfinkel is a right-wing activist known for supporting Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

Givat HaShaked is not the only settlement in East Jerusalem being pushed by the Custodian General. Documentation obtained by Haaretz reveals Givat HaShaked is one of six Jewish neighborhoods Israel is currently advancing across East Jerusalem. These include one in Sheikh Jarrah, one near Damascus Gate, one in Sur Baher, one in Beit Hanina, and another in Beit Safafa.

Activists emphasized that Gurfinkel’s appointment is directly intertwined with the heightened settlement activity and displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Amy Cohen, director of international relations and advocacy at the Jerusalem-focused Israeli human rights organization Ir Amim, said of Gurfinkel:

What we’ve seen is that since his appointment in 2017, there has been a substantial increase in eviction lawsuits against Palestinians and the expansion of Jewish settlement in Palestinian areas.”


Settlement expansion under the guise of helping Palestinians

According to Ir Amim, the acreage set for Givat HaShaked is actually on land that is undergoing formal land registration in the Sharafat area of Beit Safafa.

Israel’s 2018 Government Decision 3790 was marketed to the public as a means to push economic development in East Jerusalem and reduce socioeconomic inequality. The initiative reserved 50 million shekels (nearly $16 million) for the registration of land rights in East Jerusalem, an important prerequisite needed to secure building permits. Israeli authorities often use the absence of building permits as justification for demolishing Palestinian homes.

However, as uncovered by Ir Amim, land registration procedures are being used to advance Jewish settlement – as found in Sheikh Jarrah – rather than develop Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

Demolition East Jerusalem

Israeli authorities demolish an East Jerusalem Palestinian home for “being built without obtaining a permit” June, 2021. Photo | Activestills

“On one hand, [Government Decision 3790] is depicted as a tool to aid Palestinians,” Cohen told MintPress News. “And yet it’s being used to further the expansion of Jewish settlement and confiscation of Palestinian land and property.”

Land registration is supposed to be a transparent and publicized process, Sari Kronish, East Jerusalem planner at Israeli planning rights organization Bimkom, explained. “The state is supposed to publish a map of the areas of the plots and invite people to make claims. And if claims are made that contradict each other, then the registrar is supposed to send those claims to court to be clarified,” Kronish said. “But the way the state is actually doing it, we see that it’s being done quietly. People often don’t know that it’s happening.”

“We don’t know yet of a single case where the Palestinians will be able to benefit from it,” Kronish added.


East Jerusalem’s housing crisis

Like other areas of East Jerusalem, Beit Safafa is suffering from an extreme housing shortage.  This is a result of a bureaucratic labyrinth of building permits and a lack of zoning plans. While the Palestinian population has quadrupled to nearly 40% of Jerusalem’s total population since 1967, Israeli authorities have allowed Palestinians to develop only 9% of the land in East Jerusalem.

Abu Ghassan, chairman of the board of directors for Beit Safafa-Sharafat, dismissed the notion that the Israeli government is merely recommending the development of Givat HaShaked. “Israel is not promoting the plan,” Ghassan said. “It’s a reality that we are living and the plan is going to happen.” He said Beit Safafa residents are up in arms over the Givat HaShaked plan, given they have been requesting the city for more housing for young couples in Beit Safafa. But their demands have failed to be heard.

“What’s happening in Beit Safafa is a political situation. They’re doing the same thing in many other Arabic villages in Jerusalem.” Ghassan said. “Jerusalem’s government is just ignoring the Arabic community as if they don’t live here at all. They’re ignoring us while developing their own community.”

According to Ghassan, former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who served until 2018, promised 400 homes to Beit Safafa but the current mayor, Moshe Lion, walked back this commitment.

Ghassan explained Beit Safafa’s housing shortage is the result of infrastructure and encroaching settlements. Beit Safafa is currently surrounded by three Israeli settlements – Gilo, Givat Hamatos, and East Talpiot – and the majority Jewish neighborhood of Pat, which has made it difficult for Beit Safafa residents to obtain construction permits. Beit Safafa was also split in two when the Begin Highway and HaRav Ovadia Yosef Road were built, leading to a lack of open space.


The Bennett doctrine

The area reserved for Givat HaShaked was once sought after for development by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 1995, Rabin put forward a housing project for the land, sparking international outcry. The UN Security Council voted to have Israel halt the plan, with the United States vetoing the resolution. Rabin shelved his expropriation efforts days after the UN vote, in what has been speculated to be an exchange for the U.S.’ veto.

Now, the current Israeli government is going beyond what any previous leadership dared to do, Daniel Seidemann, founder and director of Israeli non-profit Terrestrial Jerusalem, emphasized.

“These [settlement] plans are now on the agenda,” Seidemann told MintPress News. “Relations between the United States and [Israeli Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett are charged at the moment,” Seidemann continued. “The Americans have made their concerns very clear about [the settlements of] E1 and Atarot, so why is Bennett having another poke-in-the-eye over something like this?”

Lara Friedman, president of the American non-profit Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), agreed the new government is stepping into territory even Bennett’s predecessor wouldn’t touch. “They’re as bad as the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government and in many ways, they’re worse,” Friedman said. “These settlements are absolutely incompatible with any commitment to anything other than permanent Israeli control over the entire area,” Friedman added, highlighting the record number of home demolitions throughout Area C of the Occupied West Bank as another way Bennett’s government is pushing increased annexation.

Demolition East Jerusalem

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian boy during the demolition of a Palestinian shop in East Jerusalem. Photo | AP

From Ir Amim’s Cohen’s perspective, despite Bennett’s government being a politically diverse coalition, hardline voices are the ones in power. “Far-right members of the coalition are put in very strategic, high-level positions, like in the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice,” Cohen said. “All of these portfolios are very senior and they have a lot of weight. And what we’ve seen is because of this, they are quietly able to advance this very far-right-wing agenda.”

Prominent right-wing politicians hold top spots in Israel’s government: Ayelet Shaked is Interior Minister; Ze’ev Elkin is the Minister of Housing and Construction; and Gideon Sa’ar serves as the Minister of Justice.


Biden versus Israel?

As settlement expansion becomes the defining feature of Bennett’s government, the other side of the Atlantic is becoming increasingly more vocal about Israeli occupation and land theft.

In November, 26 U.S. House Democrats penned a letter urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stop Israel from moving forward with the settlement plan in the E1 area of the West Bank.

The move was led by Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, who recently toured a Palestinian village in the West Bank with New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman. And Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum has become a strong advocate for Palestinian rights in Congress. The Democrat has sponsored two bills related to U.S. military aid to Israel and said the state practices apartheid. On the Givat HaShaked proposal and ongoing settlement expansion in Palestine, McCollum told MintPress in a statement:

Israel’s state-sponsored expansion of settlements on Palestinian land – while the Israeli government’s bureaucrats deny Palestinians permits to even build homes and bulldoze existing Palestinian homes, schools, and businesses – is destroying the prospect of a Palestinian state and the prospects for peace.

The global community views Israeli settlement expansion as illegal and lethal to any future peace process, and the U.S. government should not be silent. This situation has reached a point in which the Palestinians are clearly a people denied even basic human rights while under Israeli government subjugation.

U.S. lawmakers are emerging as more and more critical of Israel, but that hasn’t stopped Israeli state violence. In fact, Israel appears almost fueled by the condemnation.

The Struggles of Ofer Cassif, an Anti-Zionist in Israel’s Knesset

FMEP’s Friedman suggested President Joe Biden’s administration can’t keep up with the sheer number of controversial actions Israel has initiated this year, referring to increased settlement activity and Israel’s designation of six Palestinian organizations as terrorist entities.

“How much political capital does the Biden administration have to spend on any one of these things while it’s also working on Iran?” Friedman asked, arguing that the U.S. can’t expend all its political energy on Israel. So if a provocative move slips under the radar, Israel might view that as American approval. “If things like a new settlement in East Jerusalem are not on the agenda, it’s seen as a green light from Israel, that the U.S. is not opposing it,” Friedman said. “And if the U.S. does put it on the agenda, it means there’s that much less political capital that it can spend on other things.”

But at the end of the day, the U.S.-Israel alliance is a lot stronger than any notion of democracy or human rights.

“No U.S. administration wants to be perceived as picking 10 fights every day with Israel, even if Israel is engaging every day in 10 things that really demand a response from the U.S.,” Friedman observed.

Feature photo | Palestinians inspect the rubble after Israeli authorities conducted a demolition of a Palestinian shop in East Jerusalem, for “being built without obtaining a municipality permit” June 29, 2021. Photo | Activestills

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.