Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's decision in late March to approve the controversial E1 development plan sparked an international diplomatic uproar.
But in Israel this decision has received very little attention and it appears that Israeli officials prefer it that way.
The international community views the plan as a major obstacle to any future peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli officials insist that it is little more than an expansion plan for Ma'aleh Adumim.
The E1 plan (named for the 1 East route) is the Construction and Housing Ministry's code name for part of the master plan for Ma'aleh Adumim, in the area north and west of the Jerusalem-Ma'aleh Adumim road. The plan comes right up to Jerusalem's municipal boundaries and close to the neighborhoods and villages of to the east of the city.
E1 includes 12,000 dunams, mostly on the hills between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. The master plan for Ma'aleh Adumim includes some 53,000 dunams (larger than Tel Aviv or Beersheba), but the city actually covers only some 15 per cent (7,000 dunams) of this. The plan envisions 3,500 housing units, an industrial estate, police station, cemetery, garbage dump, park, tourist and public areas straddling east Jerusalem's Abu Dis neighborhood.
The European Union dubbed the plan "a violation of international humanitarian law," adding that such a move would run counter to Israel's commitments under the road-map peace plan co-authored by the United States, EU, Russia and the United Nations.
The US has made its opposition to the plan blatantly - and publicly - clear.
In contrast, Israeli officials are downplaying the significance of disagreements with the Bush administration over the proposed construction - which may explain why the Israeli government is loath to speak about the plan.
Israeli officials want the public to view the plan as an extension and development plan for Ma'aleh Adumim. During a recent visit to Japan, former Jerusalem mayor and current Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described Ma'aleh Adumim as a Jerusalem neighborhood located a five-minute drive from downtown.
Olmert said that the controversy is "out of context, unnecessary, and totally irrelevant."
One of the most prominent West Bank settlements created after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Ma'aleh Adumim was established by 23 families in 1975 on a hilltop overlooking the Judean Desert.
The name derives from the Book of Joshua (Chapter 15, verses 6-18), in which Ma'aleh Adumim is described as a border area between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The name refers to the "reddish hues" of the rock formations that dominate the route leading from the Jordan Valley to Jerusalem.
Ma'aleh Adumim became a local council in 1979. In 1991, the government officially declared Ma'aleh Adumim "the first city in Judea and Samaria." The city's population had reached 20,000 by 1995, and then climbed to 25,000 in only two more years, as new apartment blocks mushroomed in the desert. In 2000, construction of the Nofei Sela neighborhood commenced as the city expanded northeastward. Residents began moving in with the completion of the first of 1,000 housing units in 2002. Another 1,000 are currently under construction, while a further 1,500 units await approval from the prime minister and defense minister.
According to Mayor Benny Kashriel, the population will rise to 45,000 once the ongoing projects are completed. E1 will eventually bring us up to 60,000, he told In Jerusalem.
The greatest change to Ma'aleh Adumim residents' lifestyle came in January 2003, with the inauguration of a three-kilometer road connecting Ma'aleh Adumim westward to Jerusalem. Three-and-a-half years in the making, the road features two 550-meter tunnels that run under the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus and allow drivers to reach the capital's Ramot Eshkol neighborhood in seven minutes instead of the previous 15-20 minutes. Budgeted at NIS 320 million, the highway was one of Israel's largest public works projects.
With 32,000 residents, neat rows of apartment blocks and semi-detached houses and litter-free streets lined with manicured flowerbeds, Ma'aleh Adumim is essentially a comfortable commuter suburb of Jerusalem. The city boasts a small college, medical centers, two large-scale malls, a country club, and all necessary municipal services.
Kashriel, who has headed the city for 13 years, describes the population as "middle class" and explains, "Most of the city is traditional with only a few haredim." About 15 percent are 'Anglo-Saxons', mainly modern Orthodox from the US. Another 15 percent are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Most are professionals who left Jerusalem in search of quality of life. "We're Jerusalemites, in that Jerusalem is where we work, shop and go out in the evenings," says shop assistant Ravit Yochanan, 22, whose family moved to Ma'aleh Adumim when she was two weeks old. "But we're also proud of our beautiful little town and want to remain a separate entity." Yochanan is to be married this coming September, and will make her new home in Ma'aleh Adumim. "Just look around - there's no vandalism, violence or rapes like in other places. Also, there's never been a terrorist attack in Ma'aleh Adumim. Things are good here. We have a high quality of life. Ma'aleh Adumim is my home, and I don't want to bring up my children anywhere else," she told In Jerusalem.
Michael Shimon, who wears tzitziot (ritual fringes), opened his kitchenware store in the Adumim Mall six months ago. A week before Pessah, the store was bristling with eager shoppers.
"What I like about Ma'aleh Adumim is that the religious and secular communities live side-by-side without any tensions. This a special place," said Shimon.
Local pride appears to unite Ma'aleh Adumim residents and many are not in favor of the expansion.
Local schoolteacher and mother of four Ella Amoyal, who has lived in Ma'aleh Adumim for 15 years, wants the town to remain independent.
"I'm in favor of territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, but not being swallowed up by the capital," Amoyal says. "We receive value for every shekel we pay in arnona (municipal taxes) - whether in education, cleanliness or every flower planted along the roadsides." Kashriel notes that arnona charges in Ma'aleh Adumim are 35 percent less than in the capital, while the arnona collection rate stands at 92% - one of the highest in the country.
"We have nothing to gain by becoming part of the city" Amoyal concludes.
Jerusalem officials have remained silent about E1. One source, who spoke to In Jerusalem on the condition of anonymity, said, "E1 will give Jerusalem extra arnona revenues. Since Ma'aleh Adumim has a functioning and growing industrial area, the city would take more money in.
But I'm not sure that the municipality will be able to meet the expectations of the Ma'aleh Adumim residents, who have gotten used to a higher level of public services." Explaining his demand for anonymity, the official added, "We don't want to push the E1 plan into the public limelight any more than it already is. If not too much is said or written, then maybe the plan will go ahead. And that would be important for the security of Jerusalem, too."
Amos Gil, director of Ir Amim, disagrees.
"Development in the E1 area will not serve any security needs - not of Ma'aleh Adumim and not of Jerusalem. Nor is the viability of Ma'aleh Adumim at risk without the E1 development," he states categorically.
Unaffiliated with any political party, Ir Amim ("City of Nations" or "City of Peoples") was founded two years ago to actively engage in issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city.
Gil contends that the security explanation is merely a ruse. According to a January 2005 government decision, the Jerusalem "security envelope" will extend eastward beyond Jerusalem's municipal boundaries north of Abu Dis to include all of greater Ma'aleh Adumim. According to the project's timetable, construction of the controversial separation barrier is due to be completed around the end of this year.
Furthermore, according to Gil, E1 is not an integral part of any current realistic planning for Ma'aleh Adumim, and the program has been included in the master plan in order to obfuscate the true implications of the plan.
And the implications, Gil contends, are clearly political. The planned construction in the area, Gil concludes, is aimed at creating facts on the ground and unilaterally defining the future borders between Israel and Palestine.
While most Israelis see Ma'aleh Adumim as a natural extension of Jerusalem, the international community views it as an illegal settlement in the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
Kashriel responds, "I've given over 25 interviews to the foreign press in recent weeks. When they tell me that Ma'aleh Adumim is a settlement, I smile and tell them, look around. This is not a settlement - it's a city." Since the international community views Ma'aleh Adumim as a settlement, it does not accept any plans for its expansion. More significantly, both the United States and European Union maintain that E1 will block the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state under any future peace agreement.
In reply, Israel has publicly said that it will consider constructing a four-lane underpass in order to guarantee free passage between the Palestinian territories and Arab east Jerusalem.
But Gil points out that while these tunnels and roads will connect between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, they will not allow for any viable or independent economic activity or sovereign functioning. Furthermore, the plan will separate east Jerusalem from its environs, so that east Jerusalem will not be able to function as a hub for the future Palestinian entity.
Because of the new road, Ma'aleh Adumim residents can now bypass east Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods en route to work or play in the capital.
"We live side-by-side with our Palestinian neighbors. We were very good neighbors before Arafat destroyed everything by letting the terrorists run wild," says the mayor.
"We're surrounded by Arabs, but have little contact," adds Yochanan.
"We don't disturb them and they don't disturb us - that's how it should be." Just as the new road enables the Jewish travelers to ignore the Palestinians in the region, so the E1 plan does not take the Palestinians in east Jerusalem or in the region into account, either. The plan does not include provisions for schools, clinics, cemeteries, or any other necessary services.
The construction of the E1 settlement will isolate east Jerusalem from the West Bank and prevent any future peace settlement incorporating a Palestinian state, Gil explained to In Jerusalem. The entire Jerusalem metropolitan region will be under Israeli control, demarcated by the "Jerusalem Envelope." As part of this plan, the villages east of Jerusalem, including Abu Dis, Eizariya, Anata, and el-Zaim will have no connection to either the northern or the southern West Bank, or to Jerusalem. And they will lose their natural connection to the eastern part of the city.
Essentially, they will be almost completely cut off.
Seidemann also notes that two national projects currently under construction will soon change daily realities in Arab east Jerusalem, one for the better and one for the worse.
"The eastern ring road is necessary for the Palestinians, as it will connect east Jerusalem with Ramallah and Bethlehem. It's a good solution for the people of east Jerusalem. The second project - the separation wall - will have the opposite effect. The wall and ring road will pass within 100 meters of each other - two national projects with contrary intentions," he points out.
Kashriel notes that some 1,500 Palestinians from as far away as Bethlehem and Jericho are employed in 140 factories in Ma'aleh Adumim's industrial estate.
"They kept coming to work even during the height of the intifada," says the mayor proudly.
But by late afternoon one day last week, a steady stream of Palestinian laborers made their way out of the town, past the roadblock at its entrance. Three Palestinian men in their twenties were rummaging through a garbage skip under an apartment block.
"We're looking for anything useful, like toys or clothes for our children," explained one of the workers, who declined to give his name or be photographed.
In the future, if the E1 plan is implemented, they will not be able even to do this.
"Abu Dis will become an enclave, cut off from its neighbors on all sides. In the Eizariya-Abu Dis area, 45,000 people will be stranded without access," predicts Seidemann.
Although Israel has officially frozen approval of new construction in the West Bank settlement blocs since August 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly reiterated that these blocs will remain part of Israel under any agreement with the Palestinians.
The thousands of apartments presently under construction in the West Bank - mainly in Ma'aleh Adumim, Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit - are based on previous government approvals. Meanwhile plans to build thousands of additional units in these blocs are stuck at various stages of the bureaucratic process.
The state has not sold lots or issued tenders for construction in the West Bank since the freeze was instigated. Former housing minister Effi Eitam - then of the National Religious Party - intended to issue tenders for another 2,000 West Bank housing units this year, but this plan was blocked by his successor, Isaac Herzog (Labor) who says that he wants to focus on the Negev and Galilee, but has also declared that, in principle, he is "in favor of the E1 plan for the development of Ma'aleh Adumim." The Housing Ministry published tenders for the construction of 810 housing units in the territories in 2001 and 1,688 in 2002, mainly in the greater Jerusalem area or close to the Green Line.
Some 75 percent of the 2,097 houses marketed in the territories in 2003 were in the greater Jerusalem area (primarily Ma'aleh Adumim, but also Betar Illit, Givat Ze'ev and Efrat). The construction of some 800 additional units in Givat Ze'ev has been put on ice.
The building halt appears not to affect the haredi town of Modi'in Illit just over the Green Line, where some 2,500 units are currently under construction and another 12,000 units have been approved. Modi'in Illit currently numbers 33,000 residents.
In any case, the E1 project is still years away from implementation and has yet to be submitted to Israel's Supreme Planning Council. Kashriel believes that construction work will not commence before mid-2007.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres reportedly recently told US Vice President Richard Cheney that Israel is not building any new neighborhoods near Ma'aleh Adumim for the time being.
"The E1 plan has been on the drawing boards for many years, and the approval procedure will take time. I am happy that the defense minister decided to view it favorably," Kashriel told In Jerusalem.
In the meanwhile, public debate might clarify the issues.