A non-profit organization controlled by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz is the owner of the church compound near the Aroub refugee camp between Hebron and Bethlehem on the West Bank, which the buyers intend to turn into a new Jewish settlement, Haaretz has discovered.
Last Friday, Haaretz reported that right-wing activist Aryeh King had purchased the abandoned church compound and is refurbishing it ahead of establishing a new settlement outpost at the site. King, who specializes in buying Arab-owned real estate, purchased the property three years ago from its church owners. The 38-dunam (9.5-acre) complex is located on the main road between Jerusalem and Hebron.
The compound has been undergoing massive renovations over the past two months in preparation for the new residents moving in, but great efforts were made to hide the purchase and the renovations. A young man named Emanuel was in charge of the contacts with the Palestinian workers at the site, and he presented himself as a Norwegian who wanted to renovate the church and return it to its former condition. This cover story was also told to the IDF, which knew nothing about the intended use of the site.
As a result of the publication by Haaretz, a source in the Gush Etzion Regional Council told Haaretz that the property “is owned by the Swedish church and belongs to them; it doesn’t belong to us.”
Arie Suchovolsky, an attorney from Tel Aviv, was interviewed by the Palestinian Maan news agency and said the Haaretz report was untrue, and “the church is the owner of the compound, and we are refurbishing it to be a hostel to serve Jews, Muslims and Christians who pass by.”
The massive reconstruction of the compound, which can house some 20 families, has been going on for the last few months to ready it for settlers to move in. There are several security guards on the site posing as workers. A new fence has been built, despite a stop-work injunction issued by the IDF’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, since no building permit for the fence has been issued. But no permit is needed for the refurbishing because the buildings, which stand at the side of Route 60, were constructed long ago, in the late 1940s.
The site contains eight buildings, including a large central structure and several smaller ones. Over the years, a Presbyterian church operated there. Twenty years ago the church was turned into a hostel, but the business venture failed and the place was abandoned and left in ruins – although a Palestinian from the Aroub camp stayed in one of the buildings.
The compound was built by Thomas Lambie, an American missionary who worked in Ethiopia before coming to Palestine in 1947. He established a hospital for people with tuberculosis at the site, at which he was buried after his death in 1954.
King’s purchase was kept secret and only a few people were informed, including officials in the Amana settlement movement and the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, Davidi Perl. People involved in the project were instructed not to inform the Israel Defense Forces about their activities there. Security at the compound was handled by private guards, without involving the army. There are numerous security cameras all around.
The Haaretz investigation has revealed the sophisticated way the sale was carried out in order to cover tracks and hide the true identity of the new owners.
The original owners of the compound were a small Presbyterian church group from Pennsylvania named The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Joan Davenport, a nun who was in charge of the complex in the past, told Haaretz in a telephone conversation from her home in Texas that she had lived there in the past, but the church decided to end its mission in Israel and she was told in Bethlehem that there were enough local Christians and they were no longer needed. The church decided to sell the property and in March 2008 a sale was made.
In a telephone conversation from Pennsylvania, the head of the church involved, Pastor Keith Coleman, said the compound was sold to a Swedish company, Scandinavian Seamen Holy Land Enterprises. Coleman said the group was a church group based in Haifa, and had planned to renew the use of the church. The Swedish church group was represented in the sale by a Jerusalem lawyer, Shlomo Ben Menachem, who did not respond to inquiries from Haaretz.
The Swedish group was established in Stockholm in 2007, and seems to have been used as a cover for transferring the ownership of the compound to the settlers. The group does not seem to have any offices.
A representative of the group who signed the contract for the purchase is named Bruno Wenske. Wenske’s wife, Gro Faye-Hansen Wenske, is a veteran activist for Israel. In 2007, she accepted the Righteous Among the Nations Award given to her father Per-Faye Hansen for saving the lives of Jews in Norway during the Holocaust. She runs a Norwegian non-profit organization that operates trips to the Holy Land.
A source in the Norwegian Christian community in Israel described her as a very impressive woman who can raise a lot of money –- and she gives money to the settlements. She certainly would have no problem with raising money for such a project, said the source.
After the Swedish group bought the property, it registered the purchase with the Civil Administration and received the necessary approval. No one in the Civil Administration suspected the sale, and Davenport packed up her belongings in 2010 and left Israel.
After registering the purchase with the Civil Administration in 2012, the Swedish company announced its dissolution. The group had no offices or assets except for this church compound. The liquidator of the company, Swedish attorney Gustaf Cardelius, declined to provide details on the liquidation process, saying he was bound by confidentiality requirements.
Gro Wenske told Haaretz “there was a misunderstanding here,” and ended the telephone call abruptly. Others who spoke with her about the purchase and asked to help were referred to Suchovolsky.
In 2012, the Swedish company passed to new ownership. The nonprofit organization American Friends of the Everest Foundation reported in its American tax returns that it now owned the Swedish group.
Despite its name, the Everest Foundation does not operate in Nepal, but in East Jerusalem. Its only contributor is Moskowitz, whose son-in-law Oren Ben Ezra runs the organization.
Moskowitz is the main funder behind King’s activities and the purchase of properties in East Jerusalem. The Everest Foundation owns a number of properties in East Jerusalem, valued at $12 million, and now it also owns the Swedish company that controls the church compound.
King has not responded to any inquires from Haaretz. Suchovolsky has also not answered numerous requests for a response.
King has not yet decided when to populate the compound, say sources. Even if settlers move in without coordinating the move with the army, sympathetic politicians are expected to quickly exert pressure to recognize King’s ownership of the site and allow the newcomers to remain. Such a process took place at a building in Hebron in 2007 and led to a long legal battle, with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ultimately granting approval for permanent settlement of the site.
The compound’s location is of strategic importance to settlers, since there is only one settlement, Karmei Tzur, amid numerous large Arab villages between the Etzion Bloc and Hebron. Populating the compound would enable the settler movement to consolidate its hold on the southern part of the bloc.
The new settlement at the complex will also allow the settlers to spread out from the site, since there are over 500 dunams (125 acres) of land nearby that were given to nearby Kibbutz Migdal Oz in 2005. On the other side of the highway are Jordanian state lands belonging to an agricultural school. The land is in use by Palestinians, but the Civil Administration did some mapping there in 2008, and plans for the area are unclear. There are also plans to build a road to bypasses the refugee camp, which would enhance access to the compound.