Large-scale Fraud Halts Land Deals in West Bank Settlement of Beit El

WZO Settlement Division takes action after discovery that 250 homes built illegally and documents forged to cover up.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

The World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division has decided to halt land transactions in the Beit El Aleph neighborhood of the West Bank settlement of Beit El, following the discovery that documents had allegedly been forged for years to cover up the fact that some 250 structures there had been built illegally.

The division, which works to settle the West Bank as well as Israel proper, decided not to contact the police about the matter, but instead alerted the head of the Beit El local council, asking that he address the problem.

Following years of legal complications, the WZO Settlement Division began conducting a comprehensive examination at the start of this year of all of the lands registered in Beit El Aleph. The inquiry revealed that the registration was fraudulent on roughly 250 homes in Beit El, some of them old houses, some recently built. Consequently, the Settlement Division ordered the head of its central district, Yuval Funk, to stop the WZO’s transfer of property rights in the neighborhood until the matter could be settled.

The alleged forgeries of WZO Settlement Division documents were discovered as a result of the evacuation of Beit El’s Ulpana neighborhood in the summer of last year. The evacuation was ordered after it was shown that 14 buildings in the neighborhood were constructed on land owned by individual Palestinians, beyond the boundaries of the settlement.

Following a 2008 petition by some of the Palestinian landowners to the High Court of Justice, five residential buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood, containing a total of 30 apartments, were demolished. The fate of the remaining buildings on Palestinian-owned land is still pending in court.

The buildings were developed by the Company for the Development of Beit El's Yeshiva Complex. The firm's CEO, Yoel Tzur, has ties with officials associated with the Beit El yeshiva, including former Knesset member Yaakov Katz.

Of the 30 apartments that were torn down, 27 had been occupied by rental tenants. Only three had been sold to residents of the buildings.

It was in the course of efforts to head off the demolition that the owners of those three apartments became convinced they had been the victims of fraud on the part of the yeshiva. Two of the three families settled their claims for a cash payment of more than NIS 1 million, but the third, Guy Sagiv, refused to settle.

Digging through documents

Sagiv studied at the Beit El yeshiva for four years. In a letter he distributed to the residents of the settlement, he wrote that he saw a notice at the yeshiva advertising the sale of the apartments. In 2008, he met with yeshiva representatives, who told him that there was a problem with the land, and that a demolition order was issued for the construction project. In July of that year, an agreement was signed by the two sides.

According to the contract obtained by Haaretz, it was written: “Whereas the Settlement Division holds lands recognized as part of the Ulpana Hill neighborhood of Beit El, according to the agreement made between it and the administration for abandoned government property in the West Bank, and as the new resident has declared that he has received, or is about to receive, authoritative rights over the portion of the land labeled lot 373 by the zoning scheme, to build a residence, labeled apartment number 2, and recorded in the Zionist Organization’s records as number 373/2.”

None of the settlers’ ownership rights are recorded in the Civil Administration’s land registry. The land is handled by the Civil Administration, which transfers ownership to the World Zionist Organization, which then passes them along to settlement organizations like Amana. Instead of an official land registration document, each apartment owner is issued a “authorization certificate” by the World Zionist Organization, which lists the number of the plot on which their apartment is located. This document can be used to obtain a mortgage and to prove legal ownership. As such, in August 2008, Sagiv signed a contract with the Settlement Division, which granted him apartment number 2 on plot 373, according to plan 218.

After the buildings were demolished, Sagiv began to investigate how the home he purchased, legally built on state land, was actually built on stolen land. He was surprised when he looked into the World Zionist Organization’s records. The plot in question, number 373, was not located in the Ulpana neighborhood, according to the records. Rather, it was located in a different part of Beit El, called the Maoz Tzur neighborhood, which was built after the 1996 murders of Ita and Ephraim Tzur. The widower and bereaved father, Yoel Tzur, is one of Beit El’s well-known land dealers. In response to the murders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term, authorized the development of the neighborhood. Documents obtained by Haaretz show that lot number 373 and plan 218 are located in the Maoz Tzur neighborhood.

In Decmber 2012, Yuval Funk, head of the WZO Settlement Division’s central Israel department, sent a letter to Sagiv, in which he wrote: “It was made clear to you that the World Zionist Organization (henceforth – the settling body) did not receive nor record property rights for the Ulpana neighborhood. It was made clear to you that the settling body does not deal with construction permits, and did not submit requests for such permits regarding the Ulpana neighborhood. The settling body does not grant permits for transferring ownership rights in the Ulpana neighborhood.”

Beit El is not alone

This practice - the use of legal plot numbers to disguise illegal construction - has been seen in other settlements as well, but not on such a large scale. Following the High Court of Justice order handed down in 2008 to demolish nine houses in Efrat, it was revealed that there, as well, contracts had been signed that listed lands supposedly owned by the WZO.

Despite the fact that the method was exposed, the WZO decided not to report the practice to the police. At the same time, yeshiva officials are concerned over where the matter could lead. Last January, the yeshiva went to court with a request that it determine the maximum amount of reparations that could be paid to the Palestinian families who owned the land. Also, the court was asked to “prohibit them from turning to any organization, including government authorities, with requests for reparations, as paying such reparations would have ramifications on the continued development of the settlement of Beit El.”

The court was also asked to “prohibit them [the families] from tarnishing the name of the yeshiva, by approaching government authorities with any kind of request.”

The issue lies at the heart of the fierce election campaigns currently going on in Beit El, where four candidates are competing, two of whom are from the yeshiva. The candidates include Rabbi Hanoch Hacohen Pyotrekovsky, one of the yeshiva leaders, as well as attorney Ehud Yelink, who signed the contract with Sagiv. Yelink has since accused Sagiv of simply chasing after money.

The issue of land registry has come up frequently at campaign events. One Beit El resident said that according to an appraiser, the value of his home dropped 40 percent because of the registration issues. In a letter to Beit El residents, Yelink stated that the yeshiva has never shirked its intention to compensate the residents, and that the only issue has been the amount. In his letter, Yelink wrote: “It is your right to fight for each and every shekel, but please, do not turn an argument over money into some kind of argument over principle.”

The WZO’s Settlement Division did not provide a response to Haaretz.

Pyotrekovsky told Haaretz he is engaging in dialogue with those who purchased the homes directly.

Yoel Tzur refused to comment.

Homes in the Ulana neighborhood of Beit El, where documents have been forged.Credit: Emil Salman