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Why the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Atarot must be rebuilt

If Atarot does not remain Jewish, a contiguous north-south route of Arab neighborhoods will essentially divide Israel’s capital.

The abandoned Atarot Airport north of Jerusalem, April 8, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
The abandoned Atarot Airport north of Jerusalem, April 8, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Chaim Silberstein and Hillel Fendel

In light of relentless international opposition, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee found a way to postpone construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in what used to be the Atarot Airport in northern Jerusalem.

The excuse utilized for this purpose was a purported need to conduct an environmental survey. The survey will take at least a year.

The United States, the European Union and several ministers from Israel’s current left-leaning government were pushing strongly for the postponement. This, even though the city council itself had just days before approved the neighborhood.

American pressure came not only in the form of a direct message from the State Department, but also the presence of a U.S. embassy official at the very meeting at which the postponement was decided upon. Jerusalem City Council member Ofer Berkovitz says that there is no reason why the new neighborhood could not be approved and advanced simultaneously with the conducting of the environmental survey.

The 9,000 housing units that were set to be constructed in Atarot would have significantly alleviated the housing crisis in Jerusalem, and would have helped guarantee full Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, for a number of reasons. As we have explained in previous articles, northern Jerusalem is a critical front in the Arab drive to take over parts of the city and then form yet another Arab country in the land of Israel.

Atarot—site of a Jewish village in both Biblical times and the early decades of the 20th century, a currently closed airport and a huge industrial zone that has dwindled to less than half its size as a result of the Oslo war—is the main Jewish presence in northern Jerusalem. The current threat to it is very real, with the nearby Arab neighborhood of Kafr Akeb about to engage in massive illegal and unsafe Arab construction that will overflow into it.

If Atarot does not remain Jewish, a contiguous north-south route of Arab neighborhoods—Qalandia, Bir Naballa, Beit Hanina, Shuafat and, further south, to Abu Dis and Bethlehem—will essentially divide Israel’s capital. On the other hand, the large Jewish neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Yaakov cannot continue to be connected to the rest of the city merely by a highway.

“It is construction projects like this [in Atarot] that will save Jerusalem [from being divided],” said Jerusalem lands activist Aryeh King. The only way to prevent the strangling of existing Jewish neighborhoods, in addition to buffering them up, is to build new ones alongside them.

This is clearly a national priority. Nearly a year ago, plans were finalized in southern Jerusalem for the construction of a new, mostly Jewish, neighborhood in Givat HaMatos.

There, too, heavy international pressure impeded the approval of the neighborhood, located adjacent to Beit Tzafafa (Arab) and Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, along the route leading to Gush Etzion. In fact, the Israeli government, after issuing and awarding the construction tenders in Givat HaMatos, made sure to finalize and close them just hours before U.S. President Joe Biden was inaugurated. Work on the more than 1,200 housing units there is now underway.

Atarot is planned to be a mostly haredi neighborhood. Although the future disposition of a neighborhood is not generally stated outright, several hints reveal the secret: The buildings will not be higher than nine stories, so that the highest floors can be accessed on the Sabbath by those who do not use Shabbat elevators; special sukkah porches with no ceiling above them are planned for each apartment on the higher floors; and lots have been designated for synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths).

Haaretz commentator Nir Hasson wrote last week, “The [postponement] hearing well summed up the planning failure of united Jerusalem ever since 1967. The decision-makers and planners don’t see the city as a place that must be planned and built for its residents, but rather as a geopolitical chess board that must be built up in order to separate between two [Arab] neighborhoods, to preserve the [Jewish] majority or to thwart a diplomatic plan to divide the city.”

What Hasson sees as a “failure” and a contradiction between civilian needs and demographic/diplomatic considerations, we at Keep Jerusalem see as validation and a natural outgrowth of the Jewish return to its homeland. For what could be more important to the historic national and religious capital of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years than ensuring that it remain Jewish?

Israel must certainly do all it can to ensure that Arab neighborhoods in its capital not become so large that they can no longer be policed (though this already the case in some areas), and that Jews are afraid to enter. We must also proudly do everything possible to ensure as large a Jewish majority in Jerusalem as possible, and certainly to thwart any and all diplomatic plans to divide our holy city.

This is why building up Atarot, Givat HaMatos and everywhere in the Jerusalem areas liberated more than 50 years ago in the miraculous Six-Day War is the charge of the hour.

Chaim Silberstein is president of Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech and the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund. He was formerly a senior adviser to Israel’s minister of tourism. 

Hillel Fendel, past senior editor at Israel National News/Arutz 7, is a veteran writer on Jerusalem affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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