From the terrace of the mall in Maale Adumim, a West Bank settlement eight miles from Jerusalem that serves as a bedroom community for Israel’s capital city, customers get a panoramic view of the Judean Desert to the east.
Arab and Jewish towns dot the hilltops, roads snaking between them. A bright sun shines through the clouds, offering some warmth to offset the December breeze.
The northwest side of the settlement also offers a beautiful view: a sprawling landscape of rolling hills, shrubs and rocks framed by Jerusalem in the background.
It is this tranquil space that represents the newest controversy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The area, known as E1, acts as a dual corridor, connecting Maale Adumim to Jerusalem on the east-west axis and Ramallah to Bethlehem on the north-south axis. The cities are two of the largest in the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a diplomatic stir last week when he announced Israel’s intention to build there – a controversial plan that has been started and aborted since it was first announced in 1994.
The Palestinians charge that if Israel develops E1 it will bisect any future Palestinian state, rendering a two-state solution impossible. Netanyahu’s government claims that E1’s development is necessary to connect Maale Adumim to the Israeli capital.
For now, E1 sits empty. Its only building, an Israeli police station, sits on a plateau like a fortress, surrounded by fences and towers. Nearby, a bright red-and-white sign welcomes the rare visitor to Mevasseret Adumim, the name of the planned development. But there’s no neighborhood there. Instead, a road winds through empty hills to the police station. Traffic circles punctuate the road every so often, but they open in only one direction. There’s nowhere else to go.
Maale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel says Mevasseret Adumim is necessary for the burgeoning growth of his city, home to some 40,000 people. He doesn’t think Israel will ever cede the land to the Palestinians.
“We will be an Israeli city, and our land has to be in Israeli territory,” he said. “We need it for residential expansion. It’s important strategically because it’s on the hills.”
Some of the mayor’s constituents are more blase about what happens.
“It won’t bother me if they build or not,” said Maayan, 21, adding that she was not really following the controversy.
Many Israelis refer to Maale Adumim, along with two other large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, as “consensus” settlements -- areas of the disputed territory that will remain part of Israel in a two-state solution. And the residents of Maale Adumim reflect Israel’s consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: They want a peace deal but are skeptical that the conflict will be resolved anytime soon.
“I believe we can and should live in peace,” said Batsheva, who has lived in Mitzpe Jericho, near Maale Adumim, for 30 years. “No one wants to be at war. Everyone wants to accept each other’s rights. If I knew the other side would accept our right to exist, that would be ideal.”
It’s hard to find anyone in Maale Adumim who opposes developing the E1 area; most said its development is necessary for practical reasons. Maale Adumim is too big to give up and evacuate in the event of a peace settlement, they say, so why not connect it to Jerusalem and provide extra living space?
“It’s very important to connect to Jerusalem,” said Chaim Pe’er, 35. “There’s no option to evacuate Maale Adumim. When you’re not going to be evacuated, you’re going to be calmer.”
Several Maale Adumim residents interviewed by JTA drew a distinction between themselves and settlers deeper in the West Bank, who are more ideological about holding on to the territory they call by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria.
“I’m not happy about having two or three homes in a hole that we need to protect, just big cities,” Ahuva Nachmani said, derisively referring to far-flung Jewish settlements.
Maayan, like many residents of Maale Adumim, moved to the city not because of its West Bank location but because it is cheap, quiet and near Jerusalem.
Maale Adumim resident Itzik Naim sees his role as more ideological. Along with E1, Israelis should try to populate as much of the West Bank as possible, he said.
“If we had a prime minister who was a real Jew and who believed in God, we wouldn’t need excuses to build,” Naim said.