JNF-owned Company Bought Land in the Territories

Amiram Barkat
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Amiram Barkat

Since 1967, tens of thousands of dunams of land have been purchased by the Jewish National Fund in areas of strategic importance in Judea and Samaria. The lands share a common location: They are all near the Green Line, in areas which will be up for negotiation in the event of an Israel withdrawal to the 1949-1967 armistice lines. The lands were purchased with funds from the state and the World Zionist Organization, through Himnuta - a subsidiary established by the JNF to carry out complex and discreet transactions.

According to its official policy, the JNF does not purchase lands beyond the Green Line, one reason being to keep it out of political debates liable to have a negative effect on donations. However, since the 1967 Six-Day War, Himnuta has purchased land near the settlements near Jerusalem, including Beit Jala, Beit Safafa and the Etzion Bloc.

The High Court of Justice is currently considering three petitions against the state and the JNF regarding JNF's policy of allocating land to Jews only. The petitions concern land under the jurisdiction of the Israel Lands Administration. Even before the petitions were submitted to the court, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decided that the state would no longer be able to sell JNF lands to Jews only.

The JNF mission of redeeming land using donations from Jews officially ended with the establishment of the state in 1948. In discussions held during those years between the heads of the JNF and state representatives, it was agreed that instead of purchasing land the JNF would focus on strengthening Jewish settlement on the land that had already been acquired. In fact, the JNF continued purchasing land, with the declared intention of ensuring a Jewish majority in various parts of Israel.

Himnuta was founded in 1938, and later was registered as a company according to Jordanian law - a move that enabled it to operate in the territories. For years the company was the only Jewish group purchasing land in the territories. During the British Mandate (1921-1948), the company bought land near Jericho and present-day Ma'aleh Adumim to create a contiguous area under Jewish ownership. The funding in urban areas usually came from the state coffers, while the purchase of agricultural land was paid for by the JNF.

Sources involved in the matter told Haaretz that in recent years, the scope of Himnuta's land purchases in the territories has decreased significantly. Reasons for this include a budgetary crisis in the JNF, personal disagreements, and a loss of the "dynamic spirit" that characterized Himnuta's activity in the past, according to the sources.

The JNF's land purchase policy in areas such as the Galilee and East Jerusalem has been the subject of many studies, and has also been discussed in the reports of public commissions of inquiry. Very little has been published about JNF activity over the Green Line.

The Green Line is not a border

A former JNF senior executive confirmed in a conversation with Haaretz that thousands of dunams in the territories are registered under Himnuta's name (a dunam is approximately a fourth of an acre). Attorney Avraham Halleli, who until four years ago headed the lands division in the JNF, is considered the inspiration behind most of the transactions carried out by Himnuta in East Jerusalem and the territories.

In spite of the fact that most of the land in question is adjacent to the Green Line, Halleli said that Himnuta's purchases were not political. He said the land was acquired for the "natural development" of Jerusalem and additional communities. At the same time, he said that the land was purchased in places where the Green Line is subject to change. "The Green Line is not a border line; the `border' can take on a different shape, changes can be made," Halleli said.

One of the main reasons for the dearth of information on the subject is the great secrecy that has characterized Himnuta's work. Prof. Alexander Kedar, a specialist in property law at the University of Haifa who has studied JNF activity after the establishment of the state, calls Himnuta, "the Sayeret Matkal (an elite IDF commando unit) of the JNF in the realm of land purchase."

The JNF today holds 99 percent of the company's shares, and its official offices are at the JNF. Legally, Himnuta is an independent company; in many other aspects, it is the JNF by another name.

As opposed to the JNF, Himnuta is allowed to sell assets registered in its name. This is why the JNF prefers to buy certain assets, such as residential units, through Himnuta. The second main use that the JNF makes of Himnuta is to purchase assets that cannot be registered immediately under the name of the JNF.

It is not only the JNF that uses Himnuta's services. Government ministries have done so frequently. In 1990, for example, the Housing Ministry transferred NIS 3.6 million to Himnuta to buy the St. John's Hospice building in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. The transaction, which aroused international protests at the time, was made in cooperation with donors to the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva.

The JNF denied that Himnuta had decided to purchase the St. John's Hospice on behalf of the Housing Ministry.

"The Ministry of Construction and Housing gave money to fund the purchase - this was by government decision rather than a decision by the JNF or Himnuta. In this case, Himnuta was prepared to take custody of the shares of the company that bought the hostel, and nothing more," the JNF said.

JNF: Himnuta is a private company

In response to an inquiry, the JNF said, "There is nothing mysterious about Himnuta, which is properly registered both in Israel and in Judea and Samaria. ... These land acquisitions have met the test of the land registration offices as well as all the requirements of the law."

They also said that although it is a private company, Himnuta is committed to the goals of the JNF.

"The argument that implies that Himnuta is only a tool in the hands of the JNF is not correct," the JNF representative said. "As a company, Himnuta determines its activities and is allowed to do anything that accords with its public goals. Himnuta has chosen a policy of thrift and avoiding duplication, as an efficient and prudent company, and therefore it receives services from the JNF."

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