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

Israel on Thursday informed Biden government officials that it has suspended a controversial plan to continue a massive housing project in the Atarot neighborhood of East Jerusalem after Washington pushes back, 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 build 9,000 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews on the abandoned site of the former Atarot airport. The area was annexed by Israel as part of the expanded post-1967 Jerusalem, but is outside the Green Line.

The plan was removed from the agenda of a Dec. 6 meeting of the District Planning and Construction Committee, under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance, the official said.

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

The abandoned Atarot Airport is located immediately south of the Palestinian neighborhood of Kafr Aqab in East Jerusalem. Although Kafr Aqab is outside the security barrier, it is also part of Israel-annexed Jerusalem.

The Atarot project had been frozen for more than a decade, and even the Trump administration had resisted Israel’s attempts to move it forward. A plan by the previous Netanyahu administration to build 4,000 homes in the area has met opposition from the Trump administration, the Walla news site reported Thursday.

Related: The staggering rise, rapid fall, and planned radical repurposing of the Jerusalem airport

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

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

Opponents of the project argue it would hinder waning efforts to promote a two-state solution by dividing much of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider to be the capital of their future state.

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

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

The same committee made plans for the construction of 470 homes in the existing Pisgat Zeev neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

A military agency, meanwhile, has scheduled meetings to discuss a planned settlement of 3,400 houses on a barren hill outside Jerusalem, known as E1. Critics say building 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 all of East Jerusalem part of its undivided capital and says it should be able to build there as it sees fit. But most of the international community has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and views Jewish neighborhoods there as settlements.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank, areas that Israel captured that year in the Six-Day War and that the Palestinians want for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem—now home to some 700,000 people—as a major obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them illegal.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has criticized settlement building as an obstacle to eventually reinvigorating the long-dead peace process, but has not demanded a freeze. In 2010, an announcement of approval of some 1,600 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews in another part of East Jerusalem during a visit by Biden, then the vice president, exacerbated a diplomatic rift that continued throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.

Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settlement parties and the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is against a Palestinian state. But he heads a hulking coalition of parties across the political spectrum – some opposed to settlements – and appears to be seeking a middle ground to sideline the issue at home and abroad.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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