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'Bibi Always Finds a Way': Residents of Israel's Har Homa Settlement Say Building Freeze Won't Last

Sandwiched between Bethlehem and Palestinian East Jerusalem, the outpost is a pet project of Benjamin Netanyahu — and, activists say, one of the key obstacles to a two-state solution.
Image via AP

Real estate agent Eliko Zeevi holds out a shiny pamphlet showcasing a deluxe new development of around 800 new "condos." Around one-third of the price of their equivalent in central Jerusalem and only a 10-minute bus ride away from the holy city, property in Har Homa is in "high demand," he says. Would-be buyers can view a small-scale version of the complex in his office. Outside, cranes dot the horizon; building is already well underway.


In a nearby street, children queue at at a falafel shop for an after school snack and mothers walk with their strollers in the afternoon sun. At first glance, Har Homa could easily be mistaken for a regular suburban paradise.

But while Israel views the complex as a de facto suburb of its capital, Jerusalem, for much of the world the development is an illegal settlement built on territory annexed from Jordan during the 1967 war.

Typically, it is the Jewish outposts built well beyond the so-called "green-line" — such as Beit El and Eli — that attract most international attention, criticized for impeding any peace deal that might result in an independent Palestinian state. But Hagit Ofran, head of settlement watch at Israeli NGO Peace Now, warns that Har Homa, sandwiched between Bethlehem and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, is one of the "biggest obstacles" to a two-state solution. "Any viable Palestinian state has to have its capital in east Jerusalem. Har Homa is a block to that which will be very hard to resolve," she told VICE News.

Har Homa's residents are a mix of secular and religious Israelis, and many cite economic reasons for living in the settlement. Yet despite much talk of housing prices, a "shared belief" in the Zionist project is also central to the community, said Rabbi Shlomo Goldstein, who described the settlers as a "human wall that stops Jerusalem from being divided."


Back in the showroom, Zeevi offers an espresso as he runs through his sales pitch. "Buyers like it here because of the sense of the community, they like it because it is cheaper than living in the city, but they also like it because it is homogenous — by that I mean all Jewish. It's not like parts of east Jerusalem where there's a mix of Arabs and Jews." he tells VICE News, thumbing through a brochure of gleaming new homes. "I don't have a problem with mixing personally, but people who buy here prefer it to be homogenous."

Certainly, it is no coincidence that Netanyahu chose Har Homa to deliver a controversial election eve speech in which he warned that Jerusalem would be turned into a second "Hamastan," in a bid to rally right wing voters behind his lagging Likud party.

"We will continue to build in Jerusalem. We will add thousands of residential units," he told the crowd standing in front of a building site. "This neighborhood — exactly because it stops the [territorial] continuity of the Palestinians — I saw the potential was really great."

Indeed, development of Har Homa began in earnest during the late 1990s when the prime minister, then in his first term in office, gave the green light to the project. Since then, the once dusty and barren hilltop between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem has been transformed into a home for around 25,000 people, with five elementary schools, three medical centers, and a dozen kindergartens.


Netanyahu's Har Homa speech, along with another interview with Israeli news site NRG in which he pledged an independent Palestinian state would not be established under his watch, sparked anger from the White House. But it is also widely credited with giving Likud a last-minute boost, which saw it surge from second place to a clear six seat victory.

Related: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Disavows Two-State Solution to Woo Far Right Voters. Read more here.

Yet activists, who point to the prime minister's long-running relationship with the settlement, say that the speech was not a sudden swerve in Netanyahu's policy but rather an exposure of his true stance. "The elections have pushed him to say this in a very public way that has attracted a lot of international attention, but it's not new. Before it was done by the back door, he would say we don't support building more settlements whilst they were being built, but now there's no room for misinterpretation," said Peace Now's Ofran. The NGO recently published a report showing that settlement building had reached a 10-year high under Netanyahu's leadership, with ground broken on 3,100 homes in 2014.

Less than a week after Netanyahu's dramatic re-election, plans to build a further 2,000 homes in Har Homa were quietly dropped from the meeting agendas of the Ministry of Construction and Development and Jerusalem City Council for what was obliquely explained as "neither planning nor professional reasons." Officially the prime minister's office has denied that it is behind the freeze, stating that the slated discussions will take place after the new government is formed, but behind the scenes planning officials have reportedly said that hiatus is due to the "political sensitivity" of the development.


Related: Netanyahu Backtracks on Election Pledge to Refuse a Two-State Solution After Sharp Words From the US. Read more here.

Residents, however, remain optimistic that the development will be quietly picked up again once the fallout from the diplomatic storm settles down. "Building never really stops here, under any government," Rabbi Goldstein, who was one of the first to settle in Har Homa, told VICE News. "People voted for Netanyahu because he made these promises, so for him in the long term it's the right thing to do even if he comes under international pressure for it."

It is not the first time that Har Homa has been at the fore of terse relations between the US and Israel. In 2010, plans to develop 1,000 new homes in the settlement — following the expiry of a 10-month moratorium on building in West Bank during peace talks — was greeted with fury by the White House, which called the move "disappointing" and "counterproductive" to the resumption of negotiations.

Yet, Zeevi notes, the buildings went ahead and, despite bursts of international pressure, development has quietly continued over the years. "The Americans are always trying to stop building here… but Bibi always finds a way," the real estate agent says. "He's good for business."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem