AMMAN: Palestinian officials warn that Israel’s prime minister might use the fiercely fought election campaign to make a deal with right-wing Israeli parties that will include building an 11,000-unit settlement for Orthodox Jews on the runway of a former Jerusalem airport.
Israeli elections are set for March 23 and Benjamin Netanyahu has no clear path to staying in power.
Palestinian Orthodox clergyman Bishop Atallah Hanna called on Palestinians to be on the watch and prevent Israelis from turning the former Qalandia Airport into a massive Jewish settlement.
Ofer Zalzberg, the Middle East program director at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation, told Arab News that three weeks ago Netanyahu revived a plan for housing in the area before the elections to encourage unity among religious Zionist parties.
“But he failed to secure this merger,” Zalzberg said. “In the past, he has promised to advance construction in this area but never acted upon it.”
Ironically, the airport location was included in former US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” program to benefit Palestinians.
“Israel should allow for the development by the state of Palestine of a special tourism zone in Atarot, in a specific area to be agreed on by the parties,” Zalzberg said.
Khalil Tufakji, the head of the map department at Jerusalem’s Arab Studies Society, told Arab News that Israel has already made plans for a settlement on the airport runway, but that no official tender has been announced.
“But there is no guarantee that they will not do it if Netanyahu thinks it will serve his political ambitions or help him get out of jail,” Tufakji said.
More than half of the land is intended for the Jewish settlement, but the former Qalandia Airport is privately owned by Palestinians, according to Tufakji.
“Six hundred of the 1,200 dunums are privately owned by Palestinians, and another 20 dunums are owned by the Islamic Waqf,” he said.
Tufakji said this is not the first time this has happened as Israelis “have previously made similar announcements in 2012 and 2017,” he added.
Jerusalem-based lawyer Daniel Seidemann, the director of the Terrestrial Jerusalem NGO, also said it is unlikely that the plan will be implemented in the near future.
“I am tempted to say it will not happen anytime soon,” he said. “They have not started planning because of objective obstacles, enormous legal complication, and its proximity to Ramallah and Kufr Aqab. If it happens, it will be 10 years from now.”