Editor’s Notes: The battle for E1

By David Horovitz March 18, 2005

For more than a decade, no bulldozer has stirred up dust in the corridor of construction designed to link Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem

Alongside the tarmacked entrance to Isawiya, just off the main highway down from Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim and the Dead Sea, a solitary white horse gallops back and forth across a patch of lush greenery. The Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus tower soars above us, as does an adjacent array of antennas and satellite dishes.

Two kids, who should be in school at this hour of the morning, zip past on a battered bicycle. Three head-scarved Palestinian women stand chattering loudly, shopping in bags at their feet. On the terraced hillside above, where bulldozers have flattened plots for imminent building, two men in construction helmets are taking measurements. Three yellow mechanical excavators sit nearby, ready for action, alongside another plot of land that has been cleared for what a sign proclaims in Hebrew, Arabic and almost perfect English will be the ‘Issawiah Charitable Cociety’s Peace Playground.’

One squat substantial building is nearing completion opposite the putative playground. The ground has been cleared for another building next to it. The building closest to the highway is about to get another story added on top.

Sprawling down the hillside, Isawiya has gradually reached to within 100 meters or less, I’d say, of that main road into the West Bank. On the opposite side of the highway, Anata, another substantial Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood, has gradually filled out, too; only a steep decline separates its first houses from the thoroughfare.

Adjacent to Anata, on another small rise, perches the Adumim Citadel police base, its heavy metal fence appearing rather more permanent than its prefabricated main structure. At the entrance to the base, a senior officer, prevented by regulations from giving his name, points out new Palestinian construction, and says that the two facing neighborhoods – Isawiya and Anata – are quietly but inevitably sprawling toward each other, ‘fence by fence, house by house… strangling the link between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, and beyond it to the Jordan Valley.’

What about Ma’aleh Adumim, its first houses visible some six kilometers from where we stand – is that expanding in this direction? ‘Nothing moving there,’ he says. ‘Nothing at all.’

At a meeting with the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post last week, former and would-be prime minister Ehud Barak asserted that Palestinian building east of the city risked cutting off the capital from Ma’aleh Adumim, the largest of all West Bank settlements with a population of 32,000. Barak was thinking not only of Anata and Isawiya, which are part of municipal Jerusalem, but also of Palestinian villages like A-Zaim further down the highway, just outside the city limits.

The only way to thwart the sprawl and ensure that Ma’aleh Adumim and adjacent settlements would be retained by Israel in any final accord with the Palestinians, he said, would be for the government to accelerate construction in the so-called E1 corridor – a 13,000 dunam (3,250 acre) stretch west of Ma’aleh Adumim that could link up to the capital.

Successive US governments have always opposed building there, and successive Israeli governments have proven shy of confronting Washington. Now, Barak claimed, he had seen draft maps, drawn up by American officials, that project territorial contiguity for the Palestinians in the West Bank – contiguity that runs counter to any Israeli construction aspirations in E1 and, Barak asserted, that leaves Ma’aleh Adumim’s very future at risk.

Israeli building in E1, connecting Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, would cut the West Bank in two for perhaps two thirds of the distance between Jerusalem and the Jordanian border – anathema to the Palestinians and much of the international community. Barak implored the government to get the bulldozers rolling right away, and to hell with Washington. ‘[Prime Minister] Sharon has already lost Ariel and Kedumim,’ he claimed. ‘If he doesn’t take immediate action, even at the risk of friction with the Americans, he will lose Ma’aleh Adumim, too.’

If the Palestinian construction sprawl in this area is subtle and incremental, Israeli building is nonexistent. E1 was initiated as a building project more than a decade ago, with plans for 3,500 homes, by the late Yitzhak Rabin and his then-housing minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, within the framework of a wider ‘Greater Jerusalem Plan’ to close the gaps between the capital and surrounding settlements. But absolutely nothing has happened since then on the ground – not even, strikingly, since last spring, when Sharon received a letter from President Bush about population changes ultimately requiring adjustments to Israel’s borders.

Sharon hailed this document as evidence that Washington was now prepared to sanction Israeli sovereignty in major West Bank settlement blocs like Ma’aleh Adumim under a permanent peace accord. Yet, according to Barak, the prime minister is irresponsibly dragging his feet in capitalizing on that purported shift, failing to seize the moment and build in E1.

IF ANYONE might be expected to echo Barak’s alarm calls it would be Benny Kashriel, a founding developer of Ma’aleh Adumim and its mayor since 1992. And he readily acknowledges both the Palestinian expansion on either side of the sleeve down from the capital to his city, and that bulldozers have yet to counter it by stirring up dust anywhere in E1.

Yet Kashriel purports to be sanguine. ‘Barak is worried that the government is going to cave in [to the Americans],’ he says. ‘I’m not. I think he’s wrong. I don’t think the government will compromise.’

His confidence is bolstered, he says, by the evidence of his own steadily growing city – where the arrival of 500 new families by the year’s end is set to lift the population to 35,000. The US government, he notes, has objected to every new neighborhood he’s constructed. ‘They got built anyway.’ He’s sure the same will happen with E1.

Crucially, he notes, the government-approved route of the security barrier encompasses his city and adjacent settlements. This confirms, to his mind, their eventual formal annexation to Israel. (Incidentally, this kind of talk, from a prominent settler mayor, also confirms the increasingly prevalent assessment that settlements on the ‘wrong’ side of the barrier are in trouble.)

E1, he adds, is proceeding smoothly through the various planning stages, ‘with no delays’ and the explicit backing of Sharon. Full approval is anticipated ‘within eight months,’ he says. That will immediately be followed by the arrival of the developers. And the first families should be moving in ‘within two to three years.’

Kashriel explicitly endorses the quid pro quo vision – the argument that, in conceding the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, Sharon will prove to have secured the major West Bank settlement blocs, his own city first among them. But he stresses that he takes no pleasure in the prospect of his residents’ future being guaranteed at the price of those who will be forced to leave Gaza.

He adds that ‘I’d love to have Israeli rule formally extended here now, but I understand this won’t happen until a final-status accord. It doesn’t matter, though. We’re here. We’re building. We’re part of Israel.’

If his confidence is well-placed, and Barak’s concerns prove unfounded, there will be thousands more homes going up soon in the E1 corridor, where, he notes, new arrivals would be fulfilling a vital role in securing the capital.

‘We have French immigrants, American immigrants, veteran Israelis coming to Ma’aleh Adumim,’ says the mayor. ‘It’s the area with the highest demand for housing in Jerusalem’ – a function primarily of the lower prices and greater living space available.

‘I can’t invite the Gaza evacuees to move here because I oppose disengagement,’ Kashriel adds. ‘But if, heaven forbid, it happens, there’ll certainly be a good home here for them.’

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