Haaretz Probe |

The Settler Behind Shadowy Purchases of Palestinian Land in the West Bank

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The next time a new settlement is established in East Jerusalem or a settler outpost is built on land purchased from Palestinians, the person behind the deal will probably be someone you have never heard of: Tzahi Mamo, from the West Bank settlement of Ofra. Here Haaretz exposes for the first time the legal battles, mysterious methods of operation and the close ties with the settlement establishment of the man who bought land at Migron, Sheikh Jarrah, around Rachel’s Tomb (near Bethlehem) and elsewhere.

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Mamo has been involved in land purchases since the mid-1990s. Yet, even though he has connections with some of the settlers’ leaders and is a very prominent figure in property acquisitions, his name is unknown to the public. He keeps his distance from journalists and this article marks the first time his photograph has been published. A request to meet with him for the preparation of the article was met with an unequivocal reply: “Maybe in the next incarnation.” Mamo also did not respond to a series of questions sent to him in written form.

Mamo is considered a protégé of former tourism minister Rabbi Benny Elon, who is known as an avid supporter of what the Greater Israel advocates call “land redemption.” In the early 1990s, when Elon established Beit Orot Yeshiva on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Mamo helped him manage the institution and apparently was also a student there.

Elon is a central figure in a legal battle that is currently being fought over a building adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb, which is located south of Jerusalem, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The building, known as Beit Hamakolot (“the grocery stores building”), formerly housed a number of local shops in the period before the security fence went up and it could be accessed from Bethlehem.

These days, the trip from the checkpoint to one of the holiest sites in Judaism is short and oppressive. High concrete walls loom everywhere, cameras follow every move and there is not a living soul to be seen. Visitors cross a large plaza, which is flanked by soldiers and police. On the outer wall of the toilets is a large, somewhat childish painting, depicting the tomb before it became a bastion of concrete and asphalt.

At first glance, the two-story structure I am looking for appears to be abandoned. The two Border Policemen who are resting next to it in the shade don’t know exactly what it is and what goes on inside. Behind the high-security steel door, about 15 young men are studying religious texts. A few weeks ago, while they were eating lunch – mostly leftover matza from the recent Pesach festival – two of them, older than the others, huddled in a corner and whispered about bank accounts, sums of money and standing bank orders. An attempt to photograph the structure from the inside encounters a polite but firm request to desist.

For the original owners of the building – Palestinian Christian brothers – the proximity to Rachel’s Tomb was a serious drawback, as they were not allowed to use the structure. However, that proximity also made it a coveted site for believing Jews. The result was that, early in the noughties, as many Christians were leaving Bethlehem for good, the structure was sold to Jews. As in many other cases involving the purchase of Palestinian property, the sale did not go smoothly and was the subject of a legal dispute between some of the sellers and the buyers.

However, that dispute – which was finally decided by a ruling that the purchase was indeed kosher – is dwarfed by the internal struggle that has been waging in recent years for control of the structure by the purchasing parties (see “The struggle for Rachel’s Tomb,” below). The disputants are a Jewish woman from New York named Evelyn Haies, who invested more than $500,000 in the purchase of the structure, and Benny Elon, who alleges that Haies is trying to seize control of the building. In between are a series of nonprofit organizations and Israeli and American companies that were created for the purpose of the acquisition; and Tzahi Mamo, who made the purchase.

Spiritual heritage

Mamo, who is married to Yael and is the father of five children, celebrated his 40th birthday a few months ago. He had moved to Ofra from the nearby settlement of Beit El, where his parents, Dr. Reuven and Yocheved Mamo, live. Mamo’s religious background is perhaps more clearly understood from remarks made three years ago by his father – a former head of the state-religious education directorate in the Education Ministry – at a ceremony in which various people were cited for their contribution to religious education in Israel.

Dr. Mamo, who was the chairman of the committee that chose the recipients of the citation, stated: “All religious activities are blessed, but the Lord causes the Divine Spirit to descend on the spiritual heritage. The eternality of the Israeli nation is grounded in the titanic force of educational action. That is the crux.” Incidentally, in that same year Reuven Mamo’s car was shot at from an ambush near Beit El. More than 40 rounds were fired at the car, but he and his wife emerged unhurt. “The Lord saved us,” he told Arutz Sheva, a religious-Zionist radio station, after the incident.

More concretely, it was Tzahi Mamo’s close ties with Rabbi Elon that got him into the real estate business. Elon told Haaretz that Mamo “truly did many great things in that regard.” He added, in a written response: “Mamo has been a student and friend for many years. He works devotedly and very successfully at the complex and complicated task of redeeming lands in Jerusalem and other meaningful places. He has faced many legal and juridical tests and endured them all successfully. I hope he continues to work and to succeed in this dangerous and important task.”

For many years Mamo worked out of an office on the aptly named Sheshet Hayamim (Six-Day) Street in the post-1967 Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Jerusalem. Presently he works partly from an office he was given at Midreshet Reshit Yerushalayim, an institution on Hayehudim Street in Jerusalem’s Old City which runs courses about Jerusalem and offers tours of the city.

Over the years he has used some 20 companies and several associations he established or helped establish in order to purchase land and property from Palestinians (see “The tangled web Mamo weaves,” below).

By his side in the Ramat Eshkol office was his longtime associate, attorney Eli Shmuelyan, whose very faithful hands – in Mamo’s words – conducted the legal advice and the management of financial accounts in trust for many of the transactions. Shmuelyan, who after his work with Mamo was, among other positions, deputy director general of a joint government-municipality company, East Jerusalem Development Ltd., declined to talk about his activity with Mamo, saying he had not been involved with him for the past nine years.

Subsequently, Mamo worked closely with attorney Nissan Kochai, who is also an external consultant to East Jerusalem Development. Kochai told Haaretz that he maintains lawyer-client relations with Mamo and therefore cannot discuss the subject.

Another lawyer who worked with Mamo in one of the main companies he used, Space Real Estate, said that both Mamo and Shmuelyan were driven by “pure ideology.” She added, “They are people with visions and dreams. They believe in the Bible and that this land was given to the Jewish people and we have an interest in redeeming the lands – such as at Rachel’s Tomb, for example. Legally speaking they have justifications, and religiously speaking they have documentation. They are focused solely on the question of how to redeem land.”

Their approach, she said, is that “the end justifies the means” – small pause – “in the positive sense of the term.” They will do everything and find all the legal and economic solutions to achieve their goal. Mamo is the driving force, she says. He is an unusual person, and these tasks call for unusual people, “because you need a great deal of creativity.”

Working at ‘The Homeland’

Such creativity is on display in one of the companies Mamo created, Al Wattan (“the homeland,” in Arabic). The company was registered with the Civil Administration and is therefore able to execute real estate transactions in the territories (in contrast to companies registered with the Registrar of Companies in Israel).

Mamo founded Al Wattan after he was asked by the director general of the Amana settlement movement, Ze’ev Hever (aka “Zambish”), to help the Mateh Binyamin regional council (in the southern Samaria hills) locate land in general and, more specifically, around Migron. Indeed, Al Wattan was behind the purchase of some of the land on which the unauthorized settler outpost of Migron stands (see “New details about Migron, below).

The co-director of Al Wattan was 75-year-old Jerry Saltzman, a settler from Ginot Shomron. He had immigrated from the United States in 1969 and worked with Mamo in the Meyashvei Zion (Settlers of Zion) association and in Space Real Estate, two of the corporate entities through which land transactions were executed. Saltzman also accompanied Mamo on some of his trips abroad, where they met with Jews who wanted to buy land in the territories and with potential donors. Saltzman refused to talk to Haaretz about his activity with Mamo. However, he told friends that even though he was registered as a director of Al Wattan, he was not involved in the company’s activity in practice and did not know what it was doing.

A third employee of Al Wattan was David Bronstein, who examined documents and translations from Arabic. He was in touch with the Civil Administration’s land registry unit in order to register land and deal with potential problems. Bronstein also declined to talk to Haaretz, saying only “Tzahi Mamo does his work in secret and I have no desire to talk.” He was later replaced by Adi Kapah, whom Haaretz was unable to locate.

Finder’s fee

The Haaretz investigation found that Mamo’s ties with the settlement establishment were quite tight. In the early years of the last decade, when he was working on the Migron project, Mamo regularly updated the then head of the Mateh Binyamin regional council, Pinchas Wallerstein, and the director general of the Binyamin Development Corporation, Yonatan Meir.

Those relations had their ups and downs. A source who is knowledgeable about Mamo’s activity recalls that the development corporation, which paid for the finding and purchase of the land, was not pleased with the payment Mamo took for his work: $500 for every dunam (a quarter of an acre) that was eventually registered legally, and no less than $2,000 in the event of a plot of land being smaller than four dunams, though no more than $10,000.

Mamo also asked for a separate finder’s fee, but the corporation refused. Mamo, the source recalls, was not pleased with this approach and explained that his work entails improvisation and unconventional solutions, not least because of difficulties he encounters in the Civil Administration and from left-wing organizations. “I have had quite a few achievements in my work,” Mamo said at the time, in reference to his purchases. He mentioned purchases he made in Efrat, next to Bethlehem, in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere, adding that if anyone in the Binyamin regional council had any complaints against him, he would stop working for them.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Wallerstein – who headed the council until November 2008 – confirmed having met with Mamo “two or three times,” adding, “Our guideline is that anyone who can make a purchase should do so.” At the same time, he noted, Mamo worked primarily in Jerusalem, and he himself “had not been involved in these matters on a daily basis.” Initially, Yonatan Meir said that he did not know Mamo well, but after being asked about an exchange of correspondence between them said, “I am not going to talk about any of that.” Ze’ev Hever said he did not wish to comment.

The names of the truly important people in Al Wattan, and in the land acquisition project in general, rarely appear on official documents. They are front men, Arabs who locate and ostensibly purchase the land or property in their name but actually do it for a third party, in this case Mamo. The lawyer who worked with Mamo in Space Real Estate explains, “Of course there are collaborators who do not want their names to be known … a great deal of secrecy and confidentiality is involved. There are all sorts of methods, but we do not talk about such things.”

The name of the game, says a source who is very familiar with Mamo’s activity, is to conceal the fact that the true purchaser is a Jew, because Arabs are unlikely to sell land directly to Jews. “The sale by an Arab to Al Wattan, after he ostensibly bought the property from the Arab owner, is done without the seller supposedly knowing that Jews are behind Al Wattan,” the source adds. “That is why they named the company Al Wattan – so that those who buy for them will not be killed.”

‘Afraid of God’

Credit for the name Al Wattan goes in part to one of the collaborators who worked closely with Mamo from 2001 to 2006, a Jerusalem resident named Basel Darwish. Darwish was involved in a number of purchases, including a building at 18 Hanevi’im Street (Street of the Prophets) in Jerusalem, opposite the Damascus Gate, as well as in the Bethlehem region, in the settlement of Efrat and elsewhere. “Tzahi asked him how to say ‘homeland’ in Arabic and he said ‘wattan,’ and that is how the name was decided,” the source said.

Mamo met Darwish in 2001 in the office of attorney Eitan Geva, who was in contact with both of them. He calls Darwish “a friend,” but Darwish himself probably rues the day he met Mamo. “I am wanted by the Palestinian Authority, I am wanted by Hamas, my family doesn’t want to have anything to do with me because of the connection with Tzahi,” he told Haaretz. “For 40 years I worked with the state regarding land. I worked better than [Ariel] Sharon. But today no one will give me the time of day. They all threw me to the dogs after I did good work for them,” he fumes. He sent his children to school in the United States “because there were threats against them.”

Weren’t you afraid?

“I am afraid of God,” he replies.

Darwish played the role of a classic front man in land purchases. He located land or property that was up for sale, found out who the owner was, finalized the economic details of the deal, obtained a power of attorney from the buyer in order to file a warning note with the Land Registry Bureau, bought the property and afterward sold it to one of the companies that are fronts for the real buyers.

In return, he, or any other front man, gets paid thousands of dollars, usually calculated according to the size of the plot. Darwish received a monthly salary from Mamo. He also met Benny Elon in the course of their joint endeavors. “I liked him,” he says. “He would always tell me to watch over Tzahi.”

Mamo’s work and his ties with the front men, or with sellers who fear for their lives, demand considerable trust, which is created in part through face-to-face meetings. The meetings are often held in the territories, in places where Palestinians are not likely to find them: in Mamo’s car, gas stations and convenience stores adjacent to settlements and, in some cases, in the settlements themselves.

A resident of Migron recalls that Mamo once visited the home of Itai Harel, one of the leaders of the outpost, together with one of his Palestinian middlemen. Here there was a dual purpose, he notes: both to win the man’s trust and to show him the land he was interested in. Harel told Haaretz, “The thrust of this article is clear to me,” and refused to say any more.

Some meetings were held overseas. In recent years Mamo has visited Austria, France, the United States and Costa Rica in order to meet with Palestinians – and with Jewish donors. On one such trip, according to the knowledgeable source, Mamo met with the American millionaire, Irwin Moskowitz, the settlers’ patron.

Mamo also found time for other activities on some of his trips, visiting Las Vegas and Disneyland. Attorney Kochai, who accompanied him on several trips, spent time shopping in malls. To soften up his Palestinian interlocutors, Mamo talks to them about their families, mutual friends and sometimes about politics, before getting to the subject of land.

In some cases, the Palestinians actively ask Mamo for help. For example, S. (Haaretz is in possession of his full name), one of the Palestinians with whom Mamo was in contact in regard to Migron, lives in the United States and entered Israel on a tourist visa. S. asked Mamo to help him obtain a more permanent status in Israel. Mamo, seeking to forge relations of trust, promised to help but told friends that he did not really intend to do anything.

The Russian plot

A man who met with Mamo a few years ago in his office in Jerusalem recalled this week a working paper titled “Projects” which was shown to him. The document, which detailed the various transactions in which Mamo was involved at the time, attests to the wide geographical range of his activity, as well as to the difficulties he encountered.

The first project, dubbed “Russian,” focused on a plot of land on the Mount of Olives which was purchased from the Russian Church. “At the moment the [land] is registered in the Property Tax Department in the name of the Palestinian Orthodox Society and there is also an old Turkish registration,” Mamo explained in the document. His aim was to get the land registered in the Israeli Land Registry. He raised the concern that he might have to obtain the Turkish extract of title, a task he described as “far from simple.”

“Lot 53,” the document continued, was located in Jerusalem’s “Arab Musrara” neighborhood and had been purchased from the Custodian of Absentee Property, and it was necessary to transfer the registration to “our name.”

The Haaretz investigation found that this apparently refers to a project that Mamo promoted together with Benny Elon across from the Damascus Gate, in an area known as the “Nissan Beck houses.” Eight families took up residence in the project. Mamo also referred to another property in the area, noting that the owner “isn’t really agreeable to selling the building at the price we are offering.” However, he added, the threat of a lawsuit had frightened him.

“Boaz House,” Mamo continued in the document, “is an abandoned structure on the outskirts of Bethlehem which we are renovating in order to settle families there. It is necessary to obtain documents for the property,” he noted. He also referred to what he termed “the seven dunams,” namely a lot adjacent to the “tunnels road” that leads to the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of Bethlehem. “The lot belongs to absentees,” he wrote, “but it’s possible that if we request to register it with Property Tax and not with Land Registry, they won’t make trouble for us.”

Another project from that period was the Reisin Sacred Trust, which was located in the Old City and registered in the Turkish Land Registry. Mamo had been asked to register it anew in the name of the sacred trust. The problem, he said – according to the source, not without a sense of humor – is that the only clerk in the Land Registry who understands anything about Turkish deeds of title has retired. Mamo was also involved in land purchases around the settlements of Ofra and Beit El, and at the settler outpost of Tel Binyamin.

The method by which Mamo obtains information about real estate for possible purchase can be gleaned from an agreement he signed, through the Meyashvei Zion association, with a faculty member in the Department of Geography at Bar-Ilan University who had done research about efforts by Jews to gain a foothold at holy places in and around Jerusalem in the late Ottoman period, 1857-1917.

“The association sees the research work as furthering its aims,” Mamo wrote in the agreement he signed with the researcher. Under the agreement, the researcher was to receive a grant of NIS 30,000, and the study was to be published in book form. However, the two had a falling out when the researcher, who requested that his name not be published, claimed that Mamo and the association had not fulfilled their financial commitments. In 2006, after Mamo failed to reply to numerous messages, the researcher filed a complaint with the Registrar of Associations and accompanied it with a letter to Mamo.

“My next step will be to undermine your credibility and integrity in additional departments of the Justice Ministry,” the researcher stated in his letter, in which he also mentioned projects which Mamo was promoting at the time, including at Damascus Gate and the Shimon Hatzadik area in Sheikh Jarrah. The letter apparently had the intended effect, and after further negotiations the parties reached a compromise.

***

Chaim Silberstein, who also heads an organization called Keep Jerusalem, has known Mamo for 17 years. Keep Jerusalem (Hebrew name: “Im Eshkachech” – “If I forget thee”) is, according to its website, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded to educate the public at large as to the importance of a United Jerusalem under Israeli Sovereignty.”

During a tour of Jerusalem with him, in which he explains the importance of settling Jews in East Jerusalem, Silberstein plays down his role and says that these days he is most involved in information activity.

Nevertheless, over the years he helped find investors and donations for real estate transactions in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and elsewhere. He also cooperated with Mamo in several land transactions, including the one next to Rachel’s Tomb.

In a conversation, he describes Mamo as a “wily person” and adds, “He does not talk about himself or about what he does, not even with the people closest to him.” It might have been thought that these traits would further their joint aim to settle the land, but in fact their paths parted a few years ago. Silberstein is not eager to say more about this. “Let me put it this way,” he said, “I didn’t agree with his management methods.”

The tangled web Mamo weaves

An attempt to map the institutions, companies, organizations and associations that are involved in purchasing land and properties in the territories encounters a tangle of legal entities, some of them interconnected. Chaim Silberstein, for example, operated in part through an Israeli association he heads called Binyan Kesher Liyerushalayim and through a nonprofit institution he runs in the United States, the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund (formerly known as Uvneh Yerushalayim). In the early part of the last decade the fund donated about NIS 400,000 to Meyashvei Zion (Settlers of Zion), one of the key associations through which Mamo operates.

But Meyashvei Zion is only one of many bodies with which Mamo has been connected in recent years for fund-raising and investments in real estate in the territories. Another association through which he works is Lomdei Shalem, which runs a kolel (yeshiva for married men) in the Shimon Hatzadik settlement in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. This association also received tens of thousands of shekels from Silberstein’s organization.

Yet another association, founded in 2002 by Mamo and others, is Shlemut Haaretz (“entirety of the land”). Its goals, according to the papers it filed with the Registrar of Associations, include “development and land redemption throughout Binyamin and Shomron [Samaria], purchase of lands and identification of Jewish properties and lands bearing national Zionist importance.”

But these organizations constitute only a small part of Mamo’s tangled web. Over the years he has worked through no fewer than about 20 companies that he established or helped to establish in order to buy land. These include Al Wattan and Bnei Rachel, both of which were registered with the Civil Administration in the West Bank; Lippens, which is registered in the United States; Space Real Estate, an Israeli company, and others.

Mamo’s task differs in each company but usually involves the purchase and evacuation of the properties. Many of the companies he established are registered abroad. Silberstein explains: “The entanglement is partly in order to protect the Arabs. Toward the end of the intifada they were very fearful of being killed. You have to set up a system that tries to prevent attacks as far as possible.”

New details about Migron

Itai Harel, one of the leaders of the unauthorized Migron settler outpost, paid NIS 5,000 for a 49-year lease for the land on which his home stands. His neighbor, Itai Halevi, who is the outpost’s rabbi, paid NIS 6,200 for a similar lease. The purchase of the land on which their homes stand – and of other land at the site – was spearheaded by Tzahi Mamo.

Harel declined to answer questions on the subject and Halevi did not respond to a message from Haaretz.

The Haaretz investigation shows that in regard to the transactions concerning Migron – which was built on the lands of two Palestinian villages, Deir Dibwan and Burqa – Mamo operated on behalf of the Mateh Binyamin regional council. It was in consultation with the council that he established the Al Wattan association, which purchased the various lots. In 2002-2003, Mamo reported to the Binyamin Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the council, on the ongoing developments and submitted bills to the corporation totaling hundreds of thousands of shekels. The money was transferred to a trust account managed by attorney Eli Shmuelyan in the main branch of Discount Bank in Jerusalem, on Ben Yehuda Street.

According to a source who is knowledgeable about Mamo’s activity in connection with these transactions, Mamo told Pinchas Wallerstein, the head of the Binyamin regional council at the time, that he could lower the price of the land during the negotiations. However, in what he termed a “strategic decision,” he thought that at least for the first transactions a high price should be paid for the land.

Mamo also made it clear to the Binyamin Development Corporation that it was crucial to prepare a foundation for the land purchases and to create a database and map the area. To that end he requested tens of thousands of shekels. Information being published here for the first time shows that the price of the land did indeed fluctuate. For example, in one case Mamo reported to the corporation that each dunam of land in Migron was purchased for $4,500, on top of which he paid a few thousand dollars to the Palestinian middleman through whom he made the purchase, whereas the council paid $6,000 per dunam for other lots.

One of Mamo’s land transactions at Migron led to an investigation against him and his middlemen by the police’s National Fraud Investigations Unit. The police suspected that the power of attorney that was used to buy sections in Lot 26 – where Harel and Halevi built their homes – was forged.

The investigation was conducted in 2008, years after the transactions were completed. And this was decades after the ostensible seller, who supposedly signed a power of attorney in Orange County, California, died in the village of Burqa. In 2010, the State Prosecutor’s Office decided to close the case against Mamo due to insufficient evidence.

The struggle for Rachel’s Tomb

Responsibility for the activity in Beit Hamakolot (“the grocery stores building”) ostensibly rests with Bnei Rachel (Sons of Rachel), an association founded in 2010 by former tourism minister Benny Elon. However, plastered sloppily on the walls of the structure are letters of thanks and appreciation, most of them in English, addressed to “Miss Haies.” They are referring to Evelyn Haies, who paid for the purchase of much of the site and heads the Rachel’s Children Reclamation Foundation.

When asked about Haies, some of the young people standing around next to the building shrug their shoulders. They don’t know who she is. In the first years after 2000, three companies were registered in New Jersey with the aim of purchasing the property. The first, Bnei Rachel, was established by Haies and the American Friends of Beit Orot in Jerusalem, and it paid for the purchase of the first part of the structure.

The two other companies, Chearland and Homebred III, which were funded by various individuals, including Haies, paid for the rest of the property. At present, both companies are registered in Delaware. The agreement between the American Friends of Beit Orot and Haies states that she acknowledges that the building “is located in an extraordinarily sensitive place, both in political and security terms,” and that she is aware that there is no certainty that it will be possible to take control of the building. At the time, the building was being used by the Israeli army.

Utopian vision

The two parties agreed that decisions about the use and development of the building would be made jointly by Haies and Chaim Silberstein, who was then the director of Beit Orot and who would be in charge of the daily management of the building. The two parties to the agreement also agreed that rights in the building would not be transferred to a third party without mutual consent. In the event of a dispute between the sides, it was agreed that Rabbi Elon, who was an MK at the time, would act as arbitrator. If he could not take on the task, the arbitrator would be the head of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The utopian vision possessed by the investors in the building is reflected in the website of the U.S.-based Rachel Imeinu Foundation, which raised funds for the project. Illustrations of Rachel’s Tomb and of the building that was bought – in its planned metamorphosis as a religious and educational center – adorn the website. There are no walls, no fences and, of course, no Arabs anywhere in sight.

“We have a unique opportunity to renew a permanent Jewish presence in Beit Lechem [Bethlehem] for the first time since King David,” the website declares. “This is the ONLY available space to do it at the Kever Rachel [Rachel’s Tomb] complex. We have a unique and historic opportunity to harness the spiritual and educational value of Israel’s third Holiest site for the benefit of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people] through connecting hundreds of thousands of Jews to their roots and heritage.”

According to the website, the goal is to raise $8 million for the development of the center and the construction of a yeshiva. Donations of different amounts will be rewarded accordingly. Thus, a donor who gives $3.6 million will have a campus named after him; for $750,000 the visitors center or the bat mitzvah center will bear your name, and $180,000 is enough to get a library, auditorium or exhibit hall named for the donor.

At present, the “campaign objective” of $8 million remains utopian: between 2006 and 2009, only a little more than $300,000 was raised. But fund-raising was not the major problem. Over time, the trust between the parties to the purchase agreement declined and they find themselves in a legal dispute over ownership and use of the structure.

In a phone conversation from the United States, Haies is in an emotional tone and sometimes in tears. She talks about the immense importance she attaches to the site, which prompted her to invest her savings in it. She maintains that Tzahi Mamo, who was in charge of executing the transaction and registering the property in the Land Registry, should have done this in a trust in the name of the company that Haies established in the United States. In practice, he registered it in the name of the company he himself established in order to make the purchase – Bnei Rachel – which is itself registered not in Israel but with the Civil Administration in the West Bank.

Haies has harsh words for Benny Elon’s part in the affair. Her lawyer, Baruch Ben Yosef, says that his client wants to be sure that no one “is going to pull a fast one on her” and sell the property behind her back. “She invested most of her money and activity there – lessons and events – because that is what is most important for her. She does not want the yeshiva to disturb her and her activity there, which is what is happening nowadays,” he says.

Chaim Silberstein, who became involved in the Bethlehem transaction on behalf of Beit Orot Yeshiva, now also heads the Keep Jerusalem organization. He first met Mamo 17 years ago and since then they have been partners in a number of land transactions, including the one adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb.

Silberstein immigrated to Israel from South Africa 35 years ago and lives in the Beit El settlement. In a conversation about the dispute at Rachel’s Tomb, he gives the impression of being uncomfortable with the latest turn of events. “We had a vision that was truly beneficial for the Jewish people,” he says. “I established a bat mitzvah center there and people came from all over the country and from abroad. There was also a yeshiva. The site was inside the [separation] fence and there was quite a broad consensus on the subject. But something went wrong with Ms. Haies. At some stage she started to think it was all hers – and that is really the whole problem.

“Despite hundreds of hours of persuasion and requests, she did not budge from her position,” he continues. “She felt that other people, including Benny Elon, only wanted to hurt her, to deceive her.”

Saving the project

According to Silberstein, “She started to drive everyone crazy, and even went to court.” Finally, he says, “I saw that things were not going in the right direction, so I wrote to the boards of directors of the companies and effectively gave them an ultimatum: If you don’t get things straightened out and do A, B and C, I am resigning.

“Regrettably,” he adds, “they did not respond, and Haies was apparently happy for me to resign. After I left, Benny Elon, who was the spiritual father of the project, stepped in. He said, ‘I can’t allow it to deteriorate and be erased.’ He actually stepped in to save the project.”

Haies claims that the property should have been registered in trust.

“Indeed. That is the only point on which I agree with her.”

Your description of the events lends new meaning to the saying that “the Land of Israel is acquired with affliction.”

“You have no idea how often I declaim that every time I think about it. Benny Elon told me something very true, that when you are very close to doing something that is spiritually great, Satan lies very close. That is how I see this case. I think that Rachel’s Tomb is a classic symbol for the whole Jewish people. I only wanted to establish an educational center there, and everything went wonderfully and that was my life’s dream. The situation was excellent and I hope it will be so again.”

In a conversation with Elon, it is clear that he would prefer to keep the dispute out of the media. “There is nothing to be proud of in this but only to be ashamed of,” he says. “There is a dispute between Jews that is being dealt with in court. I hope it concludes as quickly as possible. Haies claims she owns the entire building, but that is not true – she is trying to take control of it. All the other associations and investors maintain that she is trying to snatch it away from them.” According to Elon, “Whatever the court will decide, that is what will be.”

Elon was involved in the project from the start, and the contract stipulates that he will be the arbitrator in the event of a disagreement. Yet, during much of the time in which the dispute developed and was dealt with, he was an MK and afterward a cabinet minister. Elon sees no problem with this, noting that “it [his involvement] was unpaid.”

What part did Tzahi Mamo play in the transaction?

“Tzahi Mamo made the purchase in negotiations with the Arabs.”

Tzahi Mamo.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Beit Hamakolot, near Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem.Credit: Uri Blau
The entrance to Rachel’s Tomb, adjacent to the security fenceCredit: Uri Blau
Construction work underway at the Migron outpostCredit: Emil Salman

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