Nearly five years after President Donald Trump broke with decades of U.S. policy and international consensus to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, the Biden administration is moving ahead with plans to build a permanent embassy compound in the city. Israel’s government has its headquarters in Jerusalem, but, because Palestinians also claim the city as their capital and because the city’s status remains disputed under international law, the U.S. Embassy, like those of most other countries, was previously based in Tel Aviv.
The plans for a new embassy, which the administration has quietly advanced in recent weeks, would consolidate Trump’s abrupt policy reversal and violate U.S. precedent both on the status of Jerusalem and on Israel’s ongoing illegal appropriation of Palestinian land. The new embassy would also make the U.S. government an active participant in that appropriation: The planned compound is to be built on land illegally expropriated from Palestinians, whose descendants, including several U.S. citizens, still have a claim to.
“The descendants of the landowners are all entitled to these properties under international law,” Suhad Bishara, legal director of the Israel-based human rights group Adalah, told The Intercept. “By moving forward with the plan to build the embassy at the Allenby site, the U.S. are taking an active part in the illegal confiscation of these properties, including infringing on their own citizens’ rights.”
“Ordinary Americans should have a chance to decide: Do we want our government to take property stolen from U.S. citizens for a U.S. Embassy?”
According to plans submitted by the U.S. State Department to Israeli authorities, the diplomatic compound would be built on a grassy plot known as the “Allenby Barracks,” after a former British military camp that the British leased from Palestinian families. The land is now registered to the state of Israel and leased to the U.S. after it was confiscated from Palestinian refugees under Israel’s 1950 Absentees’ Property Law — widely condemned legislation that has enabled Israel to claim ownership over the land of countless Palestinians it displaced.
“This land was illegally confiscated,” Bishara said, adding that absentees’ property laws were “racially designed to confiscate Palestinian property for the benefit of Israel and its Judaization processes in the area.”
Last month, Israel’s planning authorities made public a detailed proposal presented by the U.S. State Department in 2021, including 3-D renderings of the future embassy’s multi-building compound. The disclosure gives the public and the families of the original landowners until early January to formally file objections.
Descendants of those landowners have been raising their well-documented claim to that land at least since U.S. plans for the plot were first floated, and then abandoned, in the 1990s. The U.S. government has been aware of the claims to the land at least since then. Earlier this year, researchers at Adalah uncovered additional archival documentation, including deeds that remove any doubt about the land’s rightful owners.
One of the Americans with claims to the land where the U.S. Embassy is to be built is Rashid Khalidi, a respected historian and Columbia University professor whose family is one of several that has called on the U.S. government to cancel the plans. The families have also asked for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, but have received no response. (Rubin, the State Department spokesperson, said she would not comment on private correspondence, though the letter on behalf of the heirs to the land is public.)
“This is a country which supposedly considers private property sacred,” Khalidi told The Intercept. “Why is the private property of Palestinian Americans — Americans who happen to be Palestinian — something that the U.S. government feels it can allow a foreign government to take and then lease that land from that foreign government?”
“They have done this quietly. They’ve not trumpeted it,” he added. “But ordinary Americans should have a chance to decide: Do we want our government to take property stolen from U.S. citizens for a U.S. Embassy?”
An American Plan
So far, U.S. officials have not privately or publicly acknowledged claims to the Allenby Barracks land by the original owners’ descendants, including the ones who are U.S. citizens.
In public statements, U.S. State Department officials have indicated that they are still deliberating over plans for the new diplomatic compound and doing “due diligence” on prospective sites. In addition to the Allenby Barracks plot, they are also considering a second site in the affluent Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, near the site of the current temporary U.S. Embassy.
According to official Israeli transcripts, however, U.S. officials have told Israeli planning authorities that they intend to develop both plots. “One complex will be for the Embassy’s office building and the other complex will be used for other uses, and will be developed after the Embassy is built,” State Department representatives told Israeli officials, according to one Hebrew-language transcript, suggesting that the second site might be used to house diplomats and embassy staff.
The U.S. government has invested significantly in the plans for the disputed site. Last year, during a Zoom presentation before Israeli officials, including the mayor of Jerusalem, four State Department representatives pitched their plan for the new embassy — making no reference to the land’s disputed status but describing the boost to commerce that the compound would bring to the area. The proposal included a slideshow with 3-D renderings of the multi-building plan, detailed enough to include references to traffic and parking impact as well as plans for “tree preservation.”
Official planning documents for the compound were filed with Israeli authorities by James Kania, a U.S. foreign service officer who listed on his LinkedIn page overseeing “real estate and construction projects including a $17 million Ambassador’s Residence and a $1 million retrofit of a residence for the U.S. Marine Detachment in Jerusalem” as well as having “served as the main logistics manager for the physical transition of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” (Kania declined to comment, referring questions to the embassy.)
The architects for both the Allenby and Arnona projects are Chicago-based Krueck Sexton Partners, in collaboration with an Israel-based firm. Krueck Sexton Partners did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite U.S. officials’ vague statements on the matter, the plans and transcripts recently made public by Israeli authorities leave no doubt that the State Department is not only moving forward with the new embassy, but that it is also actively lobbying for Israel’s sign-off despite repeated objections by the land’s rightful owners.
“They’re trying to do this on the down-low,” said Khalidi. “They pretend that they’re not involved. In fact, the planning documents are prepared by the U.S. government. One of them has the U.S. Embassy in Israel logo on it. It’s a fiction. This is a U.S. government effort — together with the Israeli planning authorities, of course.”
Some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee, becoming refugees, when Israel was established in 1948. For decades, Israel has refused their return and confiscated their lands, even as it continues to illegally expand and build settlements in Palestinian territories it has occupied more recently.
The international community, including the U.S., has long condemned Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land as a violation of refugee and property rights. The U.S. voted in favor of a United Nations resolution asserting Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their homes and compensation for those choosing not to return.
“The question is, is this going to be made permanent by this administration’s policy?”
The U.S. has effectively done nothing, however, to stop the expropriation of Palestinian land — including the ongoing construction of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. To build a U.S. Embassy on stolen Palestinian land, critics say, would deal yet another blow to already lagging U.S. legitimacy in the region.
Until Trump, the U.S. has also maintained, along with much of the rest of the world, that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in line with U.N. resolutions and through negotiations — rejecting Israel’s unilateral declarations of sovereignty over the city. Trump shocked the world when he broke with decades of U.S. precedent by recognizing Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and of the Golan Heights, a Syrian region abutting Israel’s border that has been under Israeli occupation since 1967. The Biden administration has remained largely quiet on Trump’s moves.
“They have not said, ‘The United States continues to fully recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights, the United States continues to fully recognize the annexation of Jerusalem,’ as announced by the Trump administration, but in practice, they haven’t dissented from those policies,” said Khalidi. “The question is, is this going to be made permanent by this administration’s policy?”
Update: December 15, 2022, 5:20 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to include a statement from the State Department received after publication.