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With Trump in power, emboldened Israelis try redrawing Jerusalem's boundaries

Tourists and locals walk through the Arab souq in the Christian quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem on Dec. 16, 2017.

GERALDINE HOPE GHELLI/BLOOMBERG

By LOVEDAY MORRIS AND RUTH EGLASH | The Washington Post | Published: January 12, 2018

MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank — Since becoming mayor of Maale Adumim more than 20 years ago, Benny Kashriel has doggedly campaigned for his community to be recognized as part of Israel.

Now, with President Donald Trump in the White House, Kashriel thinks it may just happen.

His settlement is around four miles east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank. Most of the international community considers its construction to be illegal, built on land captured during the 1967 war.

Still, it has steadily grown from what began as a cluster of prefabricated buildings erected by 23 families in the 1970s into a burgeoning satellite city of Jerusalem. Palm trees line the wide roads of what looks like a Florida suburb. Red-roofed houses and high-rises are home to 42,000 people, who are served by all of the accoutrements of a modern city: schools, restaurants, cafes and a shopping mall.

Expansion here is particularly contentious because it could cut off Arab areas of East Jerusalem from other Palestinian territory and hobble the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Still, Maale Adumim keeps growing. In the industrial park on its outskirts, already home to 360 businesses, ground has just been broken on "Design City," a nearly 600,000-square-foot, 160-outlet interior-design retail mall.

While previous U.S. administrations called settlements an obstacle to the peace process, the Trump administration has been more restrained in publicly criticizing them, a clear break from the frequent censure under President Barack Obama of Israeli settlement activity.

Emboldened by a more supportive White House, Israeli leaders have proposed a flurry of bills and resolutions that, in part, would annex areas of the West Bank and re-engineer Jerusalem's demographic balance by redrawing the city's map to exclude Arab neighborhoods and include Israeli settlements.

Last year, Israeli lawmakers introduced a measure, called the Greater Jerusalem bill, that would expand the city's municipal boundaries to include 19 settlements, including Maale Adumim. For the moment the bill has stalled, not yet making it to a vote in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. But other efforts are underway.

Betty Herschman, advocacy director at Ir Amim, which monitors developments in Jerusalem as they relate to the peace process, said Israel has seen a "groundswell of unilateral proposals."

On New Year's Eve, the central committee of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party adopted a nonbinding resolution proposing annexation of all West Bank settlements to Israel and allowing unfettered construction.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the crowd that Trump's presidency presents a "historic opportunity."

"Today we have a president in the White House who says explicitly, yes, he understands that the obstacle to peace is Palestinian incitement, not settlement in Judea and Samaria," he said, mentioning the names some Israelis use to refer to the West Bank. "We must not miss this opportunity."

Some political observers see the Likud action as motivated by domestic politics, a populist move as Israeli elections approach.

But Hagai El-Ad, the director of Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, said there is a battle underway between those who want to continue "smart occupation," which manages to "fly two inches below international outrage" while incrementally shifting facts on the ground, and those who advocate "dumb occupation" – moving forward with formal annexation.

Trump's presidency has given new vigor to the latter, he said.

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in particular, was taken by both Israelis and Palestinians as an endorsement of Israel's policies.

"They've been encouraged by the current administration, especially after the resolution on Jerusalem," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee. "They feel like they have a free hand now. We are at a very, very critical juncture."

In his office in Maale Adumim, Kashriel says the change of attitude toward settlements under the Trump administration was immediately apparent.

All previous U.S. administrations had largely shunned the settler community, he said. "They boycotted us. They never wanted to meet us," he said.

But Kashriel was invited to Trump's inauguration in Washington. "I think they wanted to show us there is a change in the atmosphere in Washington," he said. That was followed by an invitation to Fourth of July celebrations at the U.S. ambassador's residence north of Tel Aviv.

Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his family are longtime supporters of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as is Trump's ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman.

"So you see that there is change," Kashriel said. "This is the reason now that the Knesset members are all the time raising these resolutions."

"The most important goal is to strengthen the Jewish majority in Jerusalem," said Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, who wrote the text of the Greater Jerusalem bill.

While the bill would incorporate Jewish neighborhoods into the city, the legislation also would downgrade the status of Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that are separated from the rest of the city by Israel's separation barrier.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin said by splitting these areas off from the municipality, the city's Jewish character would be increased. That effort has stumbled, however, because of objections from some members of the right-wing ruling coalition that it would essentially split Jerusalem, which Israel sees as its eternal capital.

Areas outside the security wall already have become virtually lawless and with few services. Although they are legally part of Jerusalem, the municipality does not provide services to areas on the other side of the barrier for security reasons. But these neighborhoods are not under the control of the Palestinian Authority, either.

Israeli authorities have turned a blind eye to unabated Arab construction in those neighborhoods, compared with tight restrictions on permits in Arab areas inside the wall.

Munir Zagheir, a community representative for Kafr Aqab, one of the areas Elkin suggests removing from the municipality, says there has been a long-term effort to pull Palestinians out of central Jerusalem and "empty Arabs to the sides".

Only about a mile from Kashriel's office, 58 families of Arab Bedouins live in a ramshackle collection of tents and shacks called Jabal al-Baba. Attalah Jahleen, their 42-year-old representative, said the community's fortunes have deteriorated over the past year.

"Before Trump took office, the American consulate used to visit us on a regular basis," he said. "Since Trump took over, nothing."

The families received eviction orders late last year, and there have been dozens of demolition orders, with Israeli authorities attempting to resettle them elsewhere.

Trump administration officials, he said, "have given up on us."

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Video: Protesters in Jerusalem on Dec. 8, decried President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.(Loveday Morris,Sarah Parnass,Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post)

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