Otherwise Occupied / It's Only Corruption When Land Is Stolen From Jews

The long-running case of an illegal land transfer in northern Israel vividly illustrates the two sets of standards in operation here.

Alon Ron

More than three years ago, it emerged that the Israel Lands Administration had, in the 1970s, transferred some 1,200 dunams (300 acres) of farmland from a northern moshav, which had been cultivating it, to a nearby kibbutz. The transfer – a violation of regulations – came to light by chance, through conversations between a social-justice activist and longtime residents of the moshav, most of them immigrants from Morocco.

A lawyer entered the picture, and after some nagging and document exchanges, the ILA admitted its “error” and said the land was about to be returned to the moshav. Three years have passed and the kibbutz is still making money raising crops on that land.

In the meantime the Israel Lands Administration became the Israel Land Authority. It’s amazing that law-enforcement authorities that have just devoted six months to an undercover fraud and breach-of-trust investigation into ILA director Bentzi Lieberman are doing nothing to restore the land taken “in error” from the struggling moshavnikim and given to the kibbutznikim.

To a layman, the allegations against Lieberman seem quite light. All he is suspected of doing is promoting transactions with a large construction company and helping upgrade land for projects it had planned, for its enrichment. Unlike the Yisrael Beiteinu officials currently being investigated on suspicion of corruption, Lieberman isn’t suspected of trying to line his own pocket.

Still, the police have the burden of proving that there is substance to their allegations against him. So why can information about his investigation and house arrest be found in a Google search using the term “Israel Land Authority and corruption,” while the proven theft of the land cultivated by Moshav Qa’oun, and its transfer to the neighboring Kibbutz Merav, were never investigated for suspicion of corruption?

In this case, these aren’t just allegations but common knowledge. An independent investigation was already conducted, and the results are indisputable. Haaretz has already published two articles on the case. Yet Kibbutz Merav continues to benefit from the “error” and profits from land that does not belong to it – and no one is making a fuss.

No one is making a fuss because three of the facts above need to be corrected. The land owned by Moshav Qa’oun is not in Israel’s sovereign territory, but land in the northern Jordan Valley that Israel conquered in 1967. And Qa’oun is not a Moroccan moshav; rather, Qa’oun is named after the wadi that forms its southern boundary. As for the land, it is privately owned by Palestinians who live in the West Bank town of Tubas and village of Bardala.

According to the Israeli bureaucratic procedure of taking over Palestinian land, distributing it, allocating it and managing it on both sides of the Green Line, the ILA has no authority over territory that was conquered in 1967.

The area was declared a military zone after the 1967 war, and the people who owned it and cultivated it were expelled. More than 30 years ago, as stated above, the ILA – in violation of its authority – allocated that arable land to Kibbutz Merav, a religious kibbutz that was just established.

The next stage of stealing the land from its legal owners was the construction of the separation fence in the northern Jordan Valley about 13 years ago, south of the Green Line, and – hey presto! – a total of 4,500 dunams of Palestinian land had vanished, annexed de facto to Israel. Among those 4,500 dunams was the land the ILA had transferred illegally to Kibbutz Merav three decades before.

The homeland rule

In his meetings with Palestinians farmers, Dror Etkes – who researches and documents state takeovers of land in the West Bank – heard that the people from the kibbutz inside Israel were the ones cultivating the land, as opposed to the approximately 20,000 dunams of privately owned Palestinian land that Israel’s official theft mechanisms had transferred to the Jordan Valley settlements over the years. Etkes looked into it, comparing aerial photographs; Akiva Eldar wrote about the affair in Haaretz in November 2011, after the kibbutz confirmed that it had a contract with the ILA, and the ILA said the land was not under its authority. Attorney Tawufiq Jabarin began a journey in the Israeli land bureaucracy that lasted about a year to clarify the matter with the ILA. Only in early February 2013 did he receive a reply from the ILA officially admitting the error.

According to the letter, the ILA had told Kibbutz Merav a year earlier, in February 2012, that the allocation had been made in error, so the land had been subtracted from the kibbutz land supply. A follow-up was published in Haaretz in mid-February 2013, in which ILA spokeswoman Ortal Tzabar confirmed the accuracy of the information and said the ILA was “going to make a concerted effort to wrap up this case in the near future.”

But the members of Kibbutz Merav continue to cultivate the land that belongs to the residents of Bardala and Tubas. A query that Haaretz faxed last week to the ILA spokeswoman went unanswered, and attempts to contact her by telephone failed.

Kibbutz official Ran Ben Nun told Haaretz over the weekend, “As you said, the land was given to us by the ILA and we continue to cultivate it. We are in contact with those who gave us the land.”

When asked whether the ILA had asked them to stop working the land, he responded, “We are in contact with them, and in talks with the administration [the ILA], and this is between us and the administration.”

This much is clear: When Jews are the ones harmed, it is corruption or alleged corruption. When Jews are the ones who benefit and Palestinians are the ones who are harmed and their land stolen, it is patriotism and building the homeland.

Amira Hass tweets at @Hass_Haaretz.