Settler leaders knew from the start that Beit El's Ulpana neighborhood was built partly on privately owned Palestinian land, police documents reveal, even though residents claim they bought the houses in good faith.
Yoel Tsur, CEO of the company that built the neighborhood and owns 24 of the 30 houses that the High Court of Justice has ordered razed, admitted in a police interrogation three years ago that it was built on land whose purchase was never finalized.
Tsur, a long-time Beit El resident, has run the Company for Developing Beit El's Yeshiva Complex for the last 20 years. In 1996, his wife and son were killed in a terror attack near the West Bank settlement. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (then in his first term) and then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai agreed to build a new neighborhood in their memory. In the end, two neighborhoods were built: Maoz Tsur and Ulpana Hill.
In 2008, Palestinians petitioned the High Court, claiming they own the land now occupied by five of Ulpana's 14 apartment buildings, each of which has six apartments. They also filed a police complaint for trespassing.
In 2009, police questioned Tsur under caution. His statements, reported here for the first time, reveal that settlement officials always knew the location was problematic.
Tsur said that in the mid-1990s, Amana, the settlement movement's construction arm, tried to purchase the plots in question, which are listed in the Civil Administration's land registry as Lot 34 and Lot 39. "In June 2000, a contract was signed to sell Lot 34 at a price of $6,000 per dunam, or $183,000 in total," he said.
That, however, was two years after construction at the site began.
Moreover, even according to Tsur, the contract covered only Lot 34. "I was told, I don't remember by whom, that Lot 39 was in the process of being purchased and that the deal would be completed," he said.
Asked by police whether it was completed, he answered "I don't know." Amana, he added, is the one that dealt with the land issue.
When police pressed him as to why he had built on private Palestinian land, he changed his story slightly, saying one building was accidentally built on the wrong lot.
Police then asked what could be done to finally conclude a sale begun a decade ago. "As you know, the process of Jews buying lands from Arabs is a very long process, because one doesn't want to reveal the sellers' names," Tsur responded. "Therefore, the deals are done very slowly."
Regarding Lot 39, police demanded, "How did you build buildings on this land on the basis that someone told you he had bought Lot 39, without seeing a contract?"
"The truth is I don't remember who in Amana told me that Lot 39 was in the process of being bought, and that with God's help, the deal would be concluded," Tsur said. "It was 10 years ago. But there was a permit from the Housing Ministry to plan and finance the project, so I assumed the deal had been concluded, or was about to be concluded."
Tsur admitted that he had no building permit, however. Asked whether Beit El has an approved master plan - a prerequisite for legal building - he answered, "I don't know."
Asked why he built without a permit from either the local council or the Civil Administration, Tsur told the police, "Since the Housing Ministry was a partner to planning the houses, to financing the infrastructure - electricity, sewage, water roads, sidewalks, walls, buttresses, railings - I thought in my innocence that there was no obstacle to building the houses ... A plan was submitted to the Beit El local council, and when the Housing Ministry began financing infrastructure for the project, I thought that in practice, the process had been approved."
Asked whether he had since obtained a permit, he said he has "never seen" such a document.
Surprisingly, Tsur said no less than three times that he "didn't know" or "didn't remember" who headed Amana at the time. In fact, the post had been held since 1989 by Ze'ev Hever, a legendary figure in the settlement movement and well-known to anyone involved in settlement construction.
Hever, who was also questioned, said the effort to buy Lot 39 "got stuck," and he was unaware that any building had been done there.
In 2010, police decided to close the case on the grounds that no one had committed any crime. The Yesh Din organization appealed that decision to the state prosecution, which is still considering the matter.
Police also concluded that the seller of Lot 34 - which Amana finally tried to register in its name only after the High Court petition was filed in 2008 - didn't actually own it. Last September, four months after the state promised to demolish the houses and three days before a High Court hearing on the case, Amana challenged that conclusion in the Jerusalem District Court. It will hear the suit in July.
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