Givat Hamatos: A strategic Jerusalem neighborhood
By Nadav Shragai
The plan to build a Jewish residential neighborhood in Givat Hamatos in southern Jerusalem was already approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee in 2014. However, it has been frozen for four years.
Under pressure from the United States, Germany, and other European Union countries, the issuing of the construction tenders has been suspended time after time. The project is a building plan with strategic significance. It applies to an area alongside the Green line/1949 armistice line (but outside of it), at a distance of about 300 meters from the Talpiot industrial zone and adjacent to Derech Hevron, the main traffic artery of what the world calls “West Jerusalem.”
From the Israeli standpoint, building Givat Hamatos is one of the keys to preventing a division of Jerusalem from the south, where a Palestinian wedge could impede the planned continuity between the Gilo and Har Homa neighborhoods along the southern border of Jerusalem. In October 2017, a drilling project began for sampling soil at the site, so that the building plan could go forward. Under U.S. pressure, however, the process was frozen once again.
From the Palestinian standpoint, freezing construction at Givat Hamatos is the key to preserving the option one day of urban and political linkage between Palestinian Bethlehem and Jerusalem’s Beit Safafa. As the Palestinians see it, such continuity will be part of the Palestinian urban fabric that, in the future, will form east Jerusalem, “capital of the future Palestinian state.”
Givat Hamatos is one of the last reserves of land available for building for Jews within the jurisdictional boundaries of Jerusalem. The plan envisages 2,610 housing units for the Jewish population. Next to Givat Hamatos, in the Beit Safafa vicinity, approval has been given to a next phase to increase construction for Arab housing (600-900 housing units) on private lands, mainly by raising the building percentages at the site and condensing the construction within it.
Seeking to avoid conflict with both the Obama and Trump American administrations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Housing Minister Yoav Galant not to promote it for now.
Givat Hamatos is in southern Jerusalem, 813 meters above sea level south of the Green Line, northwest of Mar Elias Monastery, near Beit Safafa, and not far from the Talpiot industrial zone. Before the Six Day War, there were Jordanian outposts at the spot, and sometimes they fired from this hill at the Jewish neighborhoods of Talpiot and Baka. On the second day of the Six Day War, June 6, 1967, a Fouga Magister aircraft was downed there and its pilot, Dan Givon, was killed. Thus the hill came to be known as Givat Hamatos (Airplane Hill).
The Beit Safafa residents call the hill a-Tabaliya. They see it as a land reserve that should be allotted to Beit Safafa, claiming that some of the lots there were bought by Beit Safafa residents before the Jordanian period but not registered under their names. They point to the housing shortage in the village and the many land expropriations it has undergone over the years so that nearby Jewish roads and neighborhoods could be built.
The Caravan Site
The year 1991 saw the establishment at Givat Hamatos of a caravan site for Ethiopian immigrants who had come to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. The site’s maximum capacity was for 400 trailers spread over about 170 dunams. Today, only a few dozen trailers are left there, mainly inhabited by homeless, non-Ethiopian Israelis. Next to the site, a monument was built to the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel. Also at the site are relics from the Second Temple period, and what remains of Jordanian communication trenches.
Details of the Plan
The “Givat Hamatos A” plan, which was approved and published in Reshumot, the official gazette of the state of Israel, envisages 2,610 “government” housing units, but the tenders for their construction have been frozen. The height for construction is 12 stories in the center of the neighborhood and four to six stories on its slopes, and the aim is to settle more than 10,000 residents. A shopping center, public buildings, and open public areas are envisaged. The plan creates linkage and territorial continuity with Beit Safafa, and it includes archaeological sites within and adjacent to the territory, where there are remains of buildings from Second Temple days.
The “Givat Hamatos B” plan envisages the building of 600-900 housing units. It was approved by the District Committee and published in Reshumot. It involves increased, condensed construction in the inhabited area and a small amount of new construction on private lands next to Beit Safafa.
The “Givat Hamatos C” plan has to do with construction north of Givat Hamatos A. The planning committees accepted the objections to it and rejected it because of defects in the “unification and division” process for lands under different ownerships.
The “Givat Hamatos D” plan is a tourism-focused plan involving the building of 1,100 hotel rooms, some of which could be turned into residences in the future.
The Territory for the Project
About 400 dunams are owned by the state. Ten percent of the territory is privately owned by Arabs from Beit Safafa and by the Greek Orthodox Church. The territory intended for Jewish building belongs to the Israel Land Authority; the area intended for Arab building is privately owned land.
The Plan’s Role in the Israeli Policy to Preserve the Jewish Majority in Jerusalem and Prevent the City’s Division
The plan to build the Jewish neighborhood on Givat Hamatos represents a continuation of the building of 12 large Jewish neighborhoods since 1967 in the areas that were added to united Jerusalem. The establishment of these neighborhoods was designed to prevent a second division of the city and also to preserve the Jewish majority in Jerusalem. The building of the Jewish neighborhoods in the many empty lands that were annexed to Jerusalem, neighborhoods in which 212,000 Jews now live, was aimed at ensuring, both territorially and demographically, the Jewish majority in Jerusalem and preventing any possibility of the city’s redivision.
One of the main reasons for the decline in Jerusalem’s Jewish majority from 73.5 percent to 60 percent today is that many Jews have left the city. As surveys by the municipality and by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research have repeatedly found, they leave mainly because of the paucity of residential buildings in the city, the severe shortage of apartments, and the resulting high prices of apartments. Over the past 25 years, more than 400,000 Jews have left Jerusalem while only 250,000 have come to live in it.
The Strategic Significance of the Plan
From an Israeli Jewish standpoint, Givat Hamatos prevents continuity between Beit Safafa and the neighborhood of Tsur Baher, which would advance the Palestinians’ future goal of “East Jerusalem, capital of the Palestinian state.” Palestinian control of the land connects Sharfat with Beit Safafa, high ground overlooking the Malcha neighborhood and even cuts off and isolates the neighborhoods of Talpiot and Baka.
Israel seeks its own continuity along the southern jurisdictional boundary of Jerusalem from Har Homa through Givat Hamatos to Gilo, with the aim of preserving the city’s unity and averting its division. Givat Hamatos’ higher altitude provides Israel control over the area between Bethlehem (under Palestinian control) and Jerusalem as well as the region southeast of Jerusalem.
At the 2007 Annapolis Conference, the Palestinians suggested a territory swap whereby Israel would continue to control the large Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, but excluding Har Homa and Givat Hamatos that Israel would abandon.
The “War for Urban Continuity”
The “war for urban continuity” is a tool for promoting national interests and one of the main facets of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle over Jerusalem. It has been and remains part of both sides’ strategy in this contest. The Israeli building is orderly building, mainly governmental. The Palestinian building is disorderly building, mainly illegal, stemming both from the paucity of building permits for Arab parts of the city since 1967 and from the Palestinian struggle strategy in Jerusalem.
The following examples from other parts of Jerusalem illustrate the “war for urban continuity”:
Building for Arabs in the Framework of the Plan
The building of about 600-900 housing units for Arabs in the Givat Hamatos vicinity besides Beit Safafa was in fact approved because the Jerusalem District Court intervened. Beit Safafa residents turned to the court with the demand that the state approve their plan, which – unlike the building plan for the Jews – had not been published in Reshumot. At first, the state argued that this was a secret political decision, but when that claim was rejected, the state announced to the court that the plan would be approved, and it was.
The U.S. Position during the Obama and Trump Administrations
During the Obama administration, the United States openly opposed the building of the Givat Hamatos neighborhood. During the Trump administration, the United States has continued to oppose the building of the neighborhood but without publicly declaring so.
In October 2014, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “deeply concerned by reports that the Israeli Government has moved forward the planning process in the sensitive area of Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem.” She added that “this step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians.” Her words were a response to the approval of the Givat Hamatos plan by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee.
European Countries’ Position
Germany is playing a central role in pressuring Israel not to build Givat Hamatos; other European countries oppose it as well. In October 2014 French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the decision to build homes in Givat Hamatos threatened the two-state solution: “One cannot claim to support a solution and at the same time do things against without consequences being drawn.” In October 2017, the European Union requested clarifications from Israel about plans for housing units in Hamatos, saying that such building “is likely to harm severely the continuity and the existence of a future Palestinian state.”
Israeli Positions on the Givat Hamatos Issue
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: According to a report that was not denied, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the chairman of the Likud’s Jerusalem branch, Ilan Gordo, that Givat Hamatos should be built as rapidly as possible and that he was involved in efforts to get this done. Netanyahu remarked, however, that in the municipal territory of Jerusalem that is over the Green line (the 1949 armistice line), things are more difficult and “everything is done little by little.”
Housing Minister Yoav Galant: On October 16, 2017, Housing Minister Galant said that “Givat Hamatos is vital to Jerusalem’s security and to maintaining Jewish continuity from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem and between Gilo and Ramat Rachel. We will promote the process until a new neighborhood has been built on the hill.”
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin: In July 2016, against the backdrop of the approval of the building plan for Arabs in the Beit Safafa vicinity (600 – 900 housing units), Minister Elkin explained that he did not “oppose the widening of the Beit Safafa neighborhood. That is what was supposed to happen according to the plan. What I oppose is that Arabs will be allowed to build in this neighborhood, while Jews will be restricted. If there are political problems, then it affects everyone. If under pressure from the court one has to build – then one should advance the processes for both Arabs and Jews. This is important in principle, and it is important because the Jewish sector has a grave shortage of housing units in Jerusalem.”
Minister Elkin added, “One has to do all in one’s power to create political pressure against the international pressure and nevertheless advance construction on Givat Hamatos. I was the first to call for this, and I was joined by Minister Bennett in the name of his whole party and by Minister Kahlon. I hope that my friends from the Likud will also join me and that I will not remain alone in the party on this issue. This is a strategic aspect of the struggle for the future of Jerusalem.”
Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Ha’aretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for thirty years. His books include: Jerusalem: Delusions of Division (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2015); The “Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); the ebook Jerusalem: Correcting the International Discourse – How the West Gets Jerusalem Wrong (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); At the Crossroads: The Story of Rachel’s Tomb (Gates for Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Temple Mount Conflict (Keter, 1995); and the essay: “Jerusalem Is Not the Problem, It Is the Solution,” in Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem, Moshe Amirav, ed. (Carmel and Florsheimer Institute, 2005).