Beit El
Residents of the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El holding a prayer vigil. Photo by Emil Salman
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Emil Salman
Beit El residents demonstrating this week to expand the neighborhood. Photo by Emil Salman
Emil Salman
Homes in the Ulana neighborhood of Beit El, where documents have been forged. Photo by Emil Salman

Hussein Farahat was born in 1919 in the West Bank village of Ein Yabrud, northeast of Ramallah. He owned a seven-dunam plot of land (1.75 acres ). He did not live to see the establishment of the settlement of Beit El; he died at home in 1971, survived by five children.

But for the settlers of Beit El, the memory of Farahat remains very much alive. That's because, according to them, he sold his land to a company owned by the wife of Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, head of the Beit El yeshiva, and the wife of MK Yaakov Katz (National Union ).

An Haaretz probe has revealed that at least some Beit El residents who are connected to the dubious land deal over the Ulpana neighborhood are also connected to this land deal, which a court ruled was based on forged documents. A middleman, in fact, went to jail for this transaction, as well as for other land-deal forgeries.

But that did not stop the people of Beit El from taking the case to the district court, with the demand that the land be registered under their names, despite the past ruling on the matter.

The fight for the land began in the late 1990s, when the Company for Developing Beit El's Yeshiva Complex began to build the Ulpana neighborhood. Seeking to extend their neighborhood, the company and its CEO Yoel Tsur, Melamed, and Katz set their hearts on Farahat's land, spitting distance away, on a hill with a commanding view.

According to the settlers, in 1993, Farahat went to the home of the notary Zalman Segal, now deceased, in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron and sold them his land. The middleman in that deal was one Isa Nabulsi, from East Jerusalem. The land was to have been transferred to another man, Tsadak Aweida, but that only happened a full decade later, in 2003.

Farahat died the same year he supposedly signed the land sale documents. However, according to a police expert, Farahat's signature on those papers looked shaky, which meant that it was either written by an elderly person or was forged. For a decade, nothing was done with the land. Nabulsi claimed in an affidavit to the court that he had a falling-out with Aweida, and so the land transfer was never completed.

But in 2003 Yoel Tsur claimed in his affidavit that he had heard from a Jewish land dealer that Aweida had rights to the land and wanted to sell it. The first step was to register the land to Aweida. Then a company was established, called Beit El Tibaneh Vetikomam, owned by Shulamit Melamed and Tamar Katz, to which Aweida was to transfer ownership of the land. However, he did not do so.

This is where the stories diverge. The lawyer who was to have handled the deal, Matanya Ben-Nun, said he "forgot" to transfer the land. Tsur, however, claims that it went through, but that it "was recommended by a security official, out of concern for the safety of the middlemen-sellers" that registration of the land under the Beit El company's name be postponed as long as possible.

It is not clear whether money ever actually exchanged hands. None of the documents shown to the court mentions that it did or what sum was involved. Until the land could be registered to Beit El Tibaneh Vetikomam, the Israel Defense Forces stepped in to assist.

In 2003 the GOC Central Command issued an order that land at the site of Jebel Artis, which included Farahat's lot, was to be "occupied for military purposes." According to the IDF, the area is used as a helipad. It is unclear why the army needs a helipad inside Beit El, when it already has two others at nearby bases.

Beit El residents told Haaretz they had not seen helicopters at the site. The army spokesman's office said in response, "The order for the helipad was issued in 2003 and was extended in 2005 to December 2007. The area is currently occupied and for a long period has been used as a helipad and an observation point." The IDF added that it was preparing to extend the order and that its actions are in keeping with international law.

Aweida was also involved in other dubious land transactions, including lands for the nearby outpost of Givat Assaf. In 2007 Aweida confessed, and was indicted for forgery and other offenses relating to land purchases. He served 15 months in prison. In 2010, Beit El Tibaneh Vetikomam asked the court to register the land under its name.

According to Tsur, who is the director of Beit El Tibaneh Vetikomam, Aweida's confession was an "aside," related to another matter, and it cannot be concluded that the documents were indeed forged. The state opposed the transaction, arguing that the court had already ruled that the deal had been forged.

Hassin Farahat, one of the late Hussein Farahat's sons, who came back to the village in 1999 after living in the United States, has now asked to join the legal process. His attorney, Alaa Makhjana, notes that his client believes that the forgers thought they could get away with it because the family left for the United States. He said his client was well aware of the attempts of the settlers to take over their land for political reasons.