Shady land deal unfolds from West Bank to California strip mall
Story of posthumous deal reveals sordid underworld in which land moves from Palestinian to Israeli hands.
The transformation of a piece of West Bank land from a Palestinian field into a Jewish settlement has roots in an unlikely place - Orange County, California - and in a document that a man supposedly signed more than four decades after the date of his death.
Unfolding from the West Bank's terraced olive groves to a strip mall in a Los Angeles suburb, the story of this posthumous deal offers a rare glimpse into the underworld of straw companies and middlemen through which chunks of land move from Palestinian to Israeli hands. Each transaction further complicates an Israeli withdrawal that would be key to any peace agreement.
The land now houses a thriving Jewish settlement, another of the facts on the ground that strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank and outrage the Palestinians. Such property deals are driven by the settlers' belief the land is their God-given right; the cooperation of Israel's governments, even those that have talked peace; and cash from wealthy donors, many of them American Jews.
In this case, a 2004 document shows a Palestinian farmer named Abdel Latif Sumarin sold a plot long tended by his family near the village of Burqa, east of the city of Ramallah, to a company with an Arabic name. The paper contains Sumarin's signature in clear English script and that of a California notary.
But an Associated Press investigation that made use of court papers, public records and interviews in the West Bank, Israel and the U.S., shows that the document is a poorly executed forgery.
There's no evidence Sumarin ever visited America, his family says he couldn't write English, and public records show he died in 1961. The notary in California says he did not sign the paper either.
The land now houses part of Migron, one of the some 100 unauthorized outposts established by settlers in the West Bank over the past decade. The six acres (2.5 hectares) of rocky soil are caught up in two court cases in Israel and investigations by Israeli police and, it appears, the FBI.
Sumarin's grandson, Abdel Munam Sumarin, can see the trailers and utility poles of Migron from his living room in Burqa. As one of his grandfather's heirs, he has appealed to Israel's Supreme Court to get the land back; other Palestinians who say they own plots occupied by the settlement have joined the suit.
"The connection between us and our land is like religion. It's our family. It's not about money - you can't state its worth in money. Money goes, but the land remains," said Sumarin, 51, a preacher at a mosque in a neighboring village.
Beginning next to a hilltop cell phone antenna in 2001, Migron is home to 45 young families. It was never officially approved by Israel's government, but the government nonetheless provided security, an access road, and infrastructure for electricity and water.
Anyone who examines the Israeli military's West Bank land records can find the owner of Parcel 26, Lot 23: Abdel Latif Sumarin of Burqa, his name still listed on documents long after he died and bequeathed the land to his children.
The settlers say they purchased the land in 2004, after they had already effectively seized it. They cite a document bearing Sumarin's name and the stamp and signature of notary public D.K. Shah, who runs the Postal Annex, an office-services business in a strip mall in the Los Angeles suburb of Tustin, about 7,600 miles from the West Bank.
Documents signed in strange places - and crooked deals - are not unusual in the lucrative and clandestine trade in Palestinian-owned land. Another recent challenge to a settler land deal in the town of Hebron involved forged documents, and a third revolved around Israeli businessmen who set up a notary with a prostitute, filmed their encounter, and then blackmailed the man into signing a sales document in Cyprus.
Palestinian society sees selling land to Israelis as treason, and the bullet-riddled corpses of Palestinian land dealers turn up every so often around the West Bank. To protect sellers, the deals are secret and almost never registered.
That allows several kinds of scams. Sometimes, Palestinians cheat the settlers by taking heir money and not turning over the land, or selling land they don't own. Other times, settlers falsely claim they've purchased Palestinians' land.
On Feb. 12, 2004, according to a document the Migron settlers provided to an Israeli court, a person identifying himself as Abdel-Latif Hassaan Sumrain (Elmatin), a previous resident of the Village of Borka Ramallah now residing in Orange County, California, appeared before Shah, the California notary.
Sumrain gave the number of a California ID card and confirmed he received an unspecified payment for turning his land over to a company called Elwatan Ltd. In Arabic, el-watan means homeland, a name that appears to have been a cynical joke by the Israeli settlers who founded the company to buy Palestinian land.
Court documents list the company's address as 17 Six-Day War St. in Jerusalem, but a woman who answered the main door to the two-story residential building said she had never heard of it. She refused to give her name.
The notary's document also doesn't stand up. It contains several misspellings, including Sumarin's name and that of his El-Mu'atan clan - mistakes that could easily have been made by someone working off a document in Arabic, which is largely written without vowels.
A check of California records shows the ID number the seller gave belongs to an Ernie Mario Mendoza. A man who answered the phone at a Poway, Calif., number for Mendoza did not appear to have heard of the case and refused to answer questions.
A Palestinian Authority document shows that Sumarin died in 1961, when his grandson says he was around 80. The grandson and a grandnephew said the elder Sumarin was buried near a fragile olive tree in the village cemetery. From there, Migron is visible on a hilltop to the east.
The El-Watan company was set up by an Israeli local government in the West Bank that was headed until recently by Pinhas Wallerstein, a prominent settler leader.
"The person who sold us the land was very much alive at the time, and living in the United States," said Wallerstein, adding that the settlers had paid millions of dollars for the small plot. He said the document transferring ownership was genuine to the best of my knowledge.
"If anyone was guilty of fraud," Wallerstein said, "it was the seller, who may have tricked the settlers into believing he was the Palestinian owner. He did not present evidence for that claim, which if true would mean the settlers spent millions without verifying the seller's identity."
The company has a photocopy of the seller's California ID and a videotape of him, Wallerstein said. But he would not make them available to the AP, saying they would eventually be introduced as evidence in court.
Shah told the AP in Tustin that he never signed the document and that the stamp on it was not authentic. Copies of Shah's real signature provided by Orange County officials do not match the signature on the Sumarin document.
"It's not my writing," Shah said. "Somebody did fraud, I guess."
He said he had been questioned by FBI agents and was not allowed to reveal more details. The FBI's Los Angeles office said only that it does not confirm or deny investigations.
Hillel Cohen, a Hebrew University expert on Palestinian collaboration with Israel, said the forgers likely would not have hesitated to use a dead man's name since Palestinians registered as owners of West Bank land are often dead or live abroad.
He said it was reasonable to expect that no one would even notice the supposed sale, let alone check its authenticity. Although Israeli watchdog groups like Peace Now and Yesh Din have tracked sales of Palestinian land in recent years, these forgers might still have been playing by the old rules, said Cohen.
"If no one cares, you don't get caught," he said.
Dror Etkes, an Israeli peace activist behind the legal action against Migron, said the crude forgery demonstrated the settlers' confidence. If they were more afraid, they would do it more professionally, he said.
The Israeli government has not recognized the Sumarin sale or any other land purchases at Migron, and is pushing a compromise deal to move Migron elsewhere in the West Bank. But the Migron settlers say they won't move and are fighting to prove their ownership in a Jerusalem court. The process could take years.
Itay Harel, a social worker who lives on the Sumarin plot in Migron, insisted the sale was legitimate, although he refused to discuss it in detail. He also made clear that from the settlers' perspective, the sale was beside the point.
"This land belongs to the people of Israel, who were driven off it by force," Harel said, referring to the defeat and exile of the Jews by Rome in A.D. 70. He said no Palestinian had a rightful claim to any part of the West Bank.
"Anyone who claims the land is his is lying, and it is said that if you lie enough times, you start believing it," he said.
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