Ariel Sharon told the Israeli Parliament Monday that he would press ahead with the construction of thousands of homes to link one of the largest Jewish settlements with Jerusalem, despite U.S. concern that it would jeopardize the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership says the plan to build 3,500 homes between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem is another step toward sealing off the city's Arab neighborhoods from the rest of the West Bank. Israel has already accelerated the construction of an eight-meter-high concrete "security barrier," seized land and expanded other settlements.
Palestinians have accused Sharon of using the political credit gained overseas for his unprecedented plan to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip as a cover to consolidate Israel's grip on Arab East Jerusalem and prevent it from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. Israel claims the entire city as its capital.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said he suspected Sharon was trying to preempt negotiations about the future of the city. This could prove the single largest obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, because the Palestinians insist they will not relinquish their claim to East Jerusalem. "Without Jerusalem there will be no stability, no security and no peace," said Qureia.
The Palestinians estimate that by the time Israel completes its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in October, the wall and barrier through Jerusalem will separate about 250,000 Arabs living in the city from the rest of the occupied territories, with severe social and economic consequences. "Things are snowballing in East Jerusalem," said Hind Khoury, the Palestinian Cabinet minister with responsibility for Jerusalem. "The disengagement plan has been given a very high profile as the way forward, and the world has embraced that. But if you look at what else is going on, there is extreme intensification of settlement expansion, the continuation of the construction of the wall, the areas that Israel is annexing; it is creating realities and influencing final-status talks."
The construction of thousands of homes in the three-mile corridor to Maale Adumim would not only extend Jerusalem deep into the West Bank but sever the main link between Palestinian towns to the south, such as Bethlehem, and those to the north, including Ramallah. Israel already effectively views Maale Adumim as part of Jerusalem by including it within the "greater Jerusalem" boundary that extends halfway across the West Bank toward Jericho. Last month, the government announced that the "security barrier" would enclose Maale Adumim, home to about 30,000 people, and another large settlement block, Gush Etzion, near Bethlehem, on the Jerusalem side.
Homes for tens of thousands more Jews are under construction or planned in these and other settlements ringing Jerusalem. An eastern bypass is being built alongside the wall and links the settlements.
While Jewish settlements are drawn ever closer to Israel, Arabs living in and around Jerusalem are increasingly cut off from communities on the West Bank to which they have close ties. In addition to the obstacles created by construction, the government plans to prevent most of the city's Arabs from traveling to towns such as Ramallah and Bethlehem by requiring them to obtain passes to leave Jerusalem via any of the 10 gates in the barrier. Almost all Palestinians living on the West Bank are barred from entering Jerusalem.
"What will be left will be small isolated [Palestinian] neighborhoods," said Khoury. "I really don't see the prospect of a capital and two states. Jerusalem has always been the central city for institutions, for shopping. People can't see a state without Jerusalem as its capital, but East Jerusalem is a strangled city."
East Jerusalem accounts for about a third of the Palestinian economy through trade and employment in tourism, education and health services. But the barrier and tighter restrictions on the movement of Palestinians have already diminished economic ties between Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories. "It's reduced from a city that was the economic heart for the Palestinians to a bunch of disconnected Palestinian enclaves," said Jeff Halper, an Israeli peace activist who has campaigned for many years against the government's discriminatory policies in Jerusalem.
Israel is also working with messianic groups that are buying up or grabbing Arab-owned properties in an attempt to create a ring of Jewish neighborhoods around Jerusalem's old city and its disputed religious sites. One of the groups, Ateret Cohanim, wants to create what it calls the "Jerusalem shield" of Jewish neighborhoods between the old city and the Arab population. Another group using similar tactics, Yerushalayim Shelanu (Jerusalem Is Ours), was founded a year ago to "ensure a united Jerusalem under Israel."
Ateret Cohanim is starting to build a settlement just inside the barrier called Kidmatzion, meaning "front line of Zion." Halper said construction of Jewish homes along the barrier made a nonsense of the government's claim that the wall can easily be removed and has no lasting consequences. "Israel calls the area around the old city the 'holy basin' where there are 17 settlements being built," he said. "Coming at the Palestinians from the other side, next to the wall you have other new construction. Even if they take the wall away, these settlements will be left to continue to claim the land for Israel."
Israel's deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, denied there was any intent to preempt final-status talks on Jerusalem, but he criticized the announcement of plans to extend Maale Adumim. "It's untimely. It shouldn't have been done," he said. Peres said there was no political motive to that or the barrier.