12.04.12

Israeli Settlement Mayor to France and Britain: Protests Don’t Matter

Back off, France and Britain. That’s what the mayor of Maale Adumim, the settlement at the heart of the West Bank construction controversy, says. He tells Dan Ephron why diplomatic protests don’t matter.

The mayor of Maale Adumim, the Israeli settlement at the center of the latest controversy over Jewish construction in the West Bank, has a message for France and Britain, two of the countries threatening diplomatic sanctions against Israel.

Your protests don’t matter.

Benny Kashriel told The Daily Beast that Europe and the United Nations were only encouraging Palestinian terrorism against Israel by criticizing settlement expansion in the West Bank.

He described as “brave” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to advance building projects in a key tract of land of the West Bank known as E1 and called on the Israeli leader to hang tough in the face of foreign pressure. 

E1 stretches between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. Critics of the development plan say it will effectively bisect the West Bank, ruining the chances for Palestinians to one day have a contiguous state of their own.

“The Europeans were never with us in building in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank] and even the Americans were not satisfied about building here. But we built in Judea and Samaria,” Kashriel said in his office at Maale Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“So with all the respect to the European countries … they know that we will continue to build here because we have our needs.”

Critics of Israel’s settlement policy say even if roads were built to accommodate the Palestinians, contiguity would be severed.

After the U.N. General Assembly voted to upgrade the membership of Palestinians at the world body, Israel announced last week its plans to build thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements and conduct preliminary planning and zoning work in E1. 

Israel views the upgrade decision, which essentially recognizes the Palestinian right to all of the West Bank and Gaza, as a violation of its previous agreements with the Palestinians. The deals include a pledge by both sides not to act unilaterally to change the status of the West Bank.

But much of the world considers Israel’s countermove as substantially more provocative. The Obama administration called the decision regarding E1 unhelpful and pressed Israel to rescind it. France and Britain summoned the Israeli ambassadors for discussions.  

Maale Adumim is one of the largest settlements in the West Bank and one of the most populated, with 40,000 residents. Its municipal boundaries encompass some 51 square kilometers of West Bank land, roughly the same area as Tel Aviv—where the population is 10 times greater. 

And yet, Kashriel, who has been the mayor since 1992, said the city needs to expand into E1 in order to accommodate the “natural growth” of its population. He said much of the land that falls within the city lines is mountainous and cannot be used for building. 

“I think that those acts that the Europeans and the United Nations do will bring terrorism here. Because when they’re doing this, they’re delegitimizing us, and they are … encouraging the Hamas,” he said, referring to the Palestinian Islamic group.

A huge topographical map of Maale Adumim, including E1, stretched across a wall of his office from floor to ceiling. Occasionally during the interview, he used a laser pointer from his desk to highlight areas on the map.

Kashriel denied that construction in E1 would cut the West Bank in two. He pointed to two corridors, one to the east of Maale Adumim and one to the west, that Palestinians could use to travel from cities in the northern West Bank to those in the south.

But critics of Israel’s settlement policy say even if roads were built to accommodate the Palestinians, contiguity would be severed.

“These arrangements, which would involve enormous expense and damage to the landscape, would create only ‘transportational connectivity’—distinct communities with no real connection except via roads,” wrote the dovish Peace Now group in a report on E1

“Such a situation is different from "territorial contiguity," which implies a continuous area in which Palestinian life—commerce, economy, education, health services, political activity, etc.—can function and flow normally, and hopefully flourish.”

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war and has settled Jews there in significant numbers since the 1970s. Some 550,000 Israeli now live in the area, alongside 2.6 million Palestinians.

Maale Adumim, about a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem, was established in 1982. Many of its residents are what Israelis call “quality-of-life settlers”—drawn to the suburban lifestyle of the town and the lower cost of living, and not motivated by the “greater Israel” ideology that’s prevalent in smaller settlements. 

Those ideological settlements tend to be more outlying—sometimes a few scattered trailer homes on a hilltop. But Maale Adumim has the trappings of an established American suburb: speed bumps and traffic circles, a country club, an indoor shopping center, parks with jungle gyms, a bowling alley and two gas stations.

In negotiations with the Palestinians, even more centrist governments have insisted that Israel retain Maale Adumim under any peace agreement—possibly in exchange for sovereign Israeli territory that would be ceded to the Palestinians.

Successive Israeli leaders have promised to advance construction in E1 but have buckled under American pressure. 

Kashriel said he was only about “30 or 40 percent certain” that Netanyahu, who faces a national election in January, would stick to the decision and actually build homes there.  

“I don’t think that our government has to be afraid of this,” he said.