JERUSALEM – With the next round of Israeli-Palestinian Authority peace negotiations scheduled for next week in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet has voted in favor of a “priority building zone” list. The plan favors increased construction to existing settlements across Judea and Samaria over well-known, economically deprived cities inside the Green Line.
Sources say that several of the more isolated settlements mentioned on the list might need to be dismantled in the event that Netanyahu signs a wide-ranging peace accord with the Palestinians. During the past week Israeli newspapers reported that some municipal planning commissions and high-ranking employees within the Interior Ministry were told that Netanyahu had issued orders to stall development plans for new neighborhoods in parts of Jerusalem and several settlements. This is part of his so-called quiet, partial construction freeze during the course of negotiations.
The Ministry of Housing and Construction is currently under the control of the pro-settler, Naftali Bennett-led Habayit Hayehudi faction, a government coalition partner. The party vehemently opposes a construction freeze and the creation of a Palestinian state. The Interior Ministry is led by Gideon Sa’ar of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, who has been frequently mentioned as a future candidate for prime minister.
The Ministry of Interior reported earlier this week that Judea and Samaria added 7,700 new residents over the past year. At this growth rate, the total population of Judea and Samaria will reach approximately 370,000 by the end of 2013.
This steady growth in Judea and Samaria spurred the government to put the relatively isolated settlements of Sansana and Negohot in the southern Hebron region, along with Rechelim and Bruchim in Samaria, on the priority building zone list. More widely populated and better-known settlements such as Elon Moreh, Ganei Tal and Ma’ale Michmash were also posted on the list.
Left off the list were cities in south-central Israel like Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Gat. Those two cities, which feature significant numbers of low-income immigrant families, have been trying to lure younger, middle-income families from central Israel in search of affordable housing, jobs, good educational opportunities for their children and cultural outlets.
The exclusion of Kiryat Gat from the list may have long-term economic repercussions, as the city is home to Intel’s largest manufacturing plant (known as FAB 28) in the Middle East. Intel executives have told Finance Minister Yair Lapid that they were willing to significantly expand their operations in Kiryat Gat and other Israeli cities, including Jerusalem, if the government provided various financial incentives. Intel currently employs nearly 7,800 workers across Israel, with more than 3,500 of them working in the Kiryat Gat facility.
The impending “mixed” northern Israeli city of Harish, which the Israeli government emphasized for construction during the previous government, was also left off the new priority list. Harish is intended to help secular, religious Zionist and haredi Jews secure cheaper housing while gaining a better quality of life and easier access to transportation arteries. Harish is also mentioned as a possible alternative for some settlers in Samaria, who might be forced to leave their nearby isolated settlements as part of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
While the Yesha Council lauded the government’s decision to expand settlement construction, Netanyahu came under fire from the mayors of Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Gat. Other critics included several Knesset members from coalition parties.
Kiryat Malachi Mayor Yossi Hadad told Yediot Aharonot, “The state of Israel has turned us into their own political punching bag. During Operation Pillar of Cloud, we were hit hard by rockets from Gaza and three people lost their lives. Yet it [the government] continues to toss us aside. Our economic situation is so dire. We don’t have enough money to appeal the government’s decision to the High Court of Justice.”