By TOVAH LAZAROFF
Half a million people will live in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc within the next decade, according to Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant, who visited the region on Tuesday.
He made the statement during a conversation with Efrat Local Council head Oded Revivi, whose settlement of more than 8,000 people is in the midst of building 1,100 new homes.
“We have an obligation to build in Gush Etzion,” Galant said as he paused to talk with reporters in the Tekoa settlement, where a new neighborhood is under construction. “This place is important historically and strategically.”
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Davidi Perl, who earlier this week inaugurated the first mall in the region, said he was pleased to work with Galant to build up the larger Jerusalem region.
To date, there are some 75,000 Israelis living in the Gush Etzion bloc – located just outside Jerusalem’s southern border, – according to 2014 population data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.
The majority – 46,874 – live in the ultra-Orthodox city of Beitar Ilit, with the remainder spread among 14 other settlements. Israel has plans to build a new city in Gush Etzion called Gevaot, but approvals are still pending for its construction.
But Efrat, which is the second-largest settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc, could quickly grow to the size of a city in the next decade, particularly if approvals are given for a new 2,500-unit project called Givat Haeitam. Revivi’s spokesman said that Efrat was likely to grow by 60 percent in the coming years.
As a first step to approving the Givat Haeitam project, the state is looking to reclassify as state land a small section of the settlement, so that an access road can be built to the site.
The first 800 units slated for construction there will be built on land purchased by Jews prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The rest of the land is deemed to be state land, except for the plots of property where an access road is needed.
Peace Now, a non-governmental group that monitors building activity in the West Bank, reported on Sunday on the state’s efforts to build that road.
The Palestinians oppose the Givat Eitam project, which they say is a new settlement located next to Bethlehem that would hamper that city’s growth.
Peace Now has warned that Israel was sealing off Bethlehem from the surrounding Palestinian areas by encircling it with Israeli housing projects, such as the Jewish neighborhoods of Har Homa and Gilo.
“Israel’s move to build a new illegal settlement and bypass road next to Bethlehem is another step into cutting the West Bank in two, and annexing Area C,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said on Monday. “Israeli authorities are doing their best to destroy the historic character of Bethlehem.”
Jamal Dajani, who heads Hamdallah’s media office, added: “The international community has an obligation to stop Israel’s illegal and ongoing land theft, before there is nothing left of Palestine.”
US State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner spoke out against the project on Tuesday, in response to a reporter’s question.
“We’re concerned because these plans, if carried out, would have the effect of isolating Bethlehem from the southern West Bank, and that’s fundamentally – in our view, fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of a two-state solution,” Toner said.
Israel maintains that the Gush Etzion bloc will be part of its final borders in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians, and that building there has no bearing on the creation of a two-state solution to end the conflict with the Palestinians.