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JNF allocates NIS 61 million “to buy Palestinian private land”

Jerusalem24 – The Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Israel on 4 August voted to allocate $18 million (NIS 61 million) to buy Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank, at the request of the Israeli Defense Ministry.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense put “great pressure” on the Jewish National Fund to allocate tens of millions of shekels to “buy” the lands, according to a report by Israeli daily Haaretz.

This came with the aim of placing the lands at the fund’s disposal and making it not officially bound or linked to the decisions of Israeli governments, in the event that they build new settlements on “lands they purchased” from their Palestinian owners.

Israel declared the land a closed military zone in 1969, barring its owners from approaching.

Why does Israel declare Palestinian lands “military zones”?

A never-before-seen document released in July this year reveals that Israel created “military firing zones” in the occupied West Bank as a mechanism for transferring land to settlements.

According to the minutes of a “top secret” 1979 meeting by the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Divison, which works in tandem with the Israeli government, then-Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon explained that he created firing zones across the West Bank for the sole purpose of eventually handing the land over to Israeli settlers.

“As the person who initiated the military fire zones in 1967, they were all intended for one purpose: to provide an opportunity for Jewish settlement in the area,” Sharon said at the meeting. “The firing zones were created for one purpose: land reserves for settlements.”

Source: +972, ‘Classified document reveals IDF ‘firing zones’ built to give land to settlers’

Israel began permitting Jewish settlers to farm the “closed military zone” land in the 1980s. It has been used to grow dates for export ever since. In 2018, after this came to light, some of the land’s Palestinian owners petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to lift the military zone designation and remove the settlers.

At around the same time, the Israeli Defense Ministry recruited the JNF (a Jerusalem-based Zionist institution known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, which has branches across the world fundraising for its operations) to purchase hundreds of dunums of private, Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank for settlers who worked the land while its owners were denied access to it, according to documents examined by Haaretz. A purchase was arranged in several stages of about 1,000 dunums from the Palestinian who claimed to own it. Before the transaction was halted, the agency bought a plot comprised of 411 dunums.

The purchase was halted due to criticism of the organization’s acquisition of land in the West Bank. According to JNF sources, the ministry recently renewed its request for the organization to complete the transaction.

The transaction to be revived after the board of the JNF approved the funding for the purchase.

The original contract was signed by Himanuta, a JNF subsidiary.

A Peace Now investigation in April 2020 revealed the Israeli government had specifically recruited the JNF to complete land purchases.

What is the Jewish National Fund?

Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the JNF has been involved in settlement activity. There were years when the role it played in settling the West Bank was central and relatively significant (mainly by land acquisitions and funding of different kinds to projects in settlements). In other years, its role was not pivotal to the development of the settlements. In recent years we see that the JNF raised significantly its involvement in the settlement activity, allocating millions of shekels to the settlements and allowing the settlers use of the JNF to
promote their agenda to take over Palestinian properties and to expand the settlements.

Main activities:

  1. Land Purchase – allocating some NIS 88 million for dubious land purchases in the West Bank.
  2. Taking legal actions to evict Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem
  3. Funding for settlement projects

Source: Peace Now, ‘KKL-JNF and its Role in Settlement Expansion’, April 2020

According to Haaretz, pressure had been applied to revive the transaction prior to a High Court hearing on the case in June this year. Ahead of the vote today, Thursday, the JNF board was told that it needed to approve the funding to pave the way for a compromise to which the organization’s management had given its consent.

At all of the hearings of the Palestinians’ petition, the state argued that it didn’t know how the settlers had begun cultivating the Palestinian land or how the state or the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization had allocated it to them. “It was decreed that we direct the process under a cloud of legal uncertainty [as to] how, decades ago, the settlers got to a situation in which they worked the parcel,” Avi Milikovsky, a lawyer representing the state, told the court in the June hearing.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut later asked: “Given that you cannot explain how the land was given to those to whom it was given, does that give them the right to remain there forever?” At prior hearings, Hayut criticized the state for turning over privately owned land and then claiming it didn’t know how that had happened.

Between 2018 and 2019, Himanuta bought land in the West Bank without the knowledge of the board of the JNF. The funding was originally earmarked for land purchases “in Jerusalem and the periphery.”

When the transactions – including the one for the date plantation – were made public, they were halted. An internal audit by former Deputy State Prosecutor Yehoshua Lemberger found irregularities in JNF officials’ conduct in connection to the transactions. Among the criticism was that they had a conflict of interest, had overstepped their authority, and had ordered the diversion of funds for West Bank land purchases.

The JNF did not adopt the audit’s recommendations, and another report concluded that the JNF executives had acted in good faith.

The Israeli Defense Ministry issued a statement following Haaretz’s request for comment, saying that, as with all High Court petitions, the state and the ministry are “addressing the petition on its merits.”

Nadeen Alshaer

Alshaer is a Palestinian journalist, a Birzeit University graduate with a B.A. in TV and Radio Broadcasting Journalism. Alshaer has 6 years of experience in journalism. She currently works as a reporter, editor and presenter/producer for PBC-Palestine TV and Jerusalem24 radio. She’s a UN and Kelley School of Business alumna.

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