The Israeli press is abuzz with the fallout between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and several European countries over Israeli plans to build 3,000 more housing units on the West Bank between Jerusalem and the sprawling Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.
Netanyahu flew to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that previously were going to focus on science, but instead concentrated on Netanyahu’s announcement, seen as a punitive measure by his right-wing government for the recent U.N. vote approving Palestine as a non-member state.
Netanyahu’s decision to move ahead on settlement construction --- considered illegal by the international community, including the United States -- in the so-called E1 corridor of the West Bank linking Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem, has particularly angered states of the European Union. Britain and France threatened to recall their ambassadors to Israel in protest this week.
So I figured it was time to go take a look.
I’d seen signs to Ma’ale Adumim many times, driving the road to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem, which for me is the most striking way out of the city, winding down through the desert canyons towards the shimmering, salty sea-lake. And I knew what it was. (You can’t live here and not know. That’s Jerusalem for you. ). But I’d never actually been there.
Ma’ale Adumim is what you might call the mother of all settlements. It’s huge. Some 39,000 people live there now. Construction started there with a handful of settler families in 1975, eight years after Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six-Day War; it was afforded official settlement status by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977. It now has a big shopping mall; cul-de-sacs where kids ride bikes; big fountains; nice playgrounds; manicured lawns; a bunch of schools.
I phoned an American expat pal. She’d never been either, and was curious too. So off we went.
Now, when you hear the word settlement, what comes to your mind?
One thing that never came to my mind, or hers, certainly not before we lived here, was a place like Ma’ale Adumim, a sprawling housing development that wouldn’t be out of place in Florida.
We drive up to the gate and tell the armed guard we’re going to go to the mall. He lifts the barrier, and we proceed up a wide street lined with towering palm trees into the gated development on the hill.
Ma’ale Adumim is nice.
Low-rise apartment buildings with red roofs in white Jerusalem stone sport balconies with flowers overlooking what must be staggering views of the desert hills. On one side, there’s the forests of E1, as yet unbuilt beyond a few Bedouin tent villages, with Jerusalem in the distance. Ma’ale Adumim is about five miles east of the center of Jerusalem in the Palestinian West Bank. Many of the Jews who live here have families and commute to work in Jerusalem.
The roads are well-maintained, flanked by wide sidewalks; the sidewalk and street borders are planted, manicured and watered. The playgrounds have nice equipment. We pass the Stanley and Ellen Wasserman Junior and Senior High School.
“This is just like something out of the U.S.,” says my friend.
We go to the mall, do a bit of shopping, have a bit of lunch. I strike up a conversation with the saleslady at one shop.
“This isn’t what I ever thought a settlement would be like,” I start tentatively, smiling. She doesn’t warm to the conversation, but replies anyway. (It helped that I just bought something).
“It’s a settlement, I guess, because it’s on land captured after 1967,” she says flatly. “But it’s a city, isn’t it?”
I’d have to agree with that. What I don’t get, sitting here sipping coffee at the Ma’ale Adumim mall, is how Israel can ever go back to its 1967 borders.
Daniela Deane, a former Washington Post reporter, is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.