From N.Y.C. to the West Bank: Following the Money Trail That Supports Israeli Settlements

Haaretz follows the trail of private U.S. donor funds from the bustling streets of Brooklyn to the deserted alleys of Hebron and into the pockets of Jewish terrorists and their families.

Uri Blau
Uri Blau
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A composite image showing the skyline of Manhattan, NY (top) and the Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim while two Palestinian schoolgirls walk past with a donkey.
A composite image showing the skyline of Manhattan, NY (top) and the Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim.Credit: Bloomberg, Reuters
Uri Blau
Uri Blau

The road leading to the Jewish enclaves in Hebron passes by the Meir Kahane Park in Kiryat Arba, the burial site of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in a 1994 massacre. The center of the old city of Hebron looks like the set of an urban war movie: barriers and concrete blocks everywhere, lookouts on rooftops, armed soldiers at intersections. They guard once-bustling streets that today are almost completely deserted, their shops shuttered. Some sections of the city are off-limits to Palestinians.

Hebron is one of the most sensitive and tense spots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An unseen soldier on a rooftop yells down not to stop on the deserted street, a settler passing by in his car gives the finger to a journalist and a Palestinian child returning from school makes the same gesture at someone he thinks is a settler.

The neighborhood of Midwood in Brooklyn, New York, is in many respects a reverse image of the streets of Hebron. A few days before Yom Kippur, one can already find Sukkot decorations in the busy stores. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews mill around, going from the Beit Yosef synagogue to its Klal Ahavat Yisrael counterpart, pausing to buy sweet pastries and bagels at kosher bakeries.

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The Haredi Jews of Midwood live in the midst of countless people of other races and religions. The neighborhood is a diverse melting pot: On Kings Highway alone, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, Muslims, Christians and Jews mingle among businesses including a pizzeria, Mexican food stand, Chinese restaurant and a wig store for Orthodox women. It is a typical immigrant neighborhood, devoid of barriers, social classes or evident hatred.

It’s perhaps surprising, therefore, to find that from here come some of the funds that support the Jewish presence in Hebron, one of the iconic symbols of the settlement enterprise and the fragmentation of the West Bank. Here, in a small, two-storey house on Ocean Avenue, close to the neighborhood’s main street, is the headquarters of the Hebron Fund.

The stickers on the entrance door may be fading, but they are familiar: “Hebron from the very beginning” and “Hebron for our forefathers and for us,” they proclaim in Hebrew. Several weeks earlier, Haaretz contacted Dan Rozenstein, the person listed as head of the non-profit group. He had refused to answer our questions or disclose the source of the $4.5 million the Fund transferred to the Jewish community in Hebron between 2009 and 2013.

No one answered the door when a Haaretz reporter rang the bell. The guard at an adjacent building said that three ladies work there. “Many envelopes arrive, and I know that it’s something to do with Jews, but I don’t know exactly what,” he said.

Stickers on the door of the headquarters of the Hebron Fund in Brooklyn, NY.Credit: Uri Blau

Some of the envelopes he saw may well have contained checks. Money from the Hebron Fund is transferred to the account of an Israeli non-profit group called “Revivers of the Jewish Community in Hebron” and goes towards financing and perpetuating Jewish settlement in the city. According to the fund’s website, “Your donation is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law,” meaning that donations to the fund can reduce the donor’s taxable income and lower his or her tax bill.

The Fund’s objective is “to improve the lives of the residents of Hebron, Israel.” Donations, it says, are invested in parks, playgrounds, libraries and more. However, these funds also went to pay the monthly salary of Menachem Livni, who headed the Revivers non-profit group between 2010 and 2012. Livni is a convicted murderer. He was one of the leaders of the Jewish Underground that operated in the occupied territories in the 1980s and was responsible for the killing of three Palestinian students and severely injuring two Palestinian mayors and a Border Police sapper. Livni, who was sentenced to life imprisonment but was released after six years, was paid hundreds of thousands of shekels by the Hebron Fund.

A deserted street with shuttered shops in Hebron. Some areas of the city are off-limits to Palestinians.Credit: Uri Blau

A billion shekels

The Hebron Fund is only one example of the many U.S.-based non-profit groups that raise money and transfer it to Israel for the purpose of financing and preserving the settlement project in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Thousands of documents from the files of dozens of American and Israeli not-for-profit organizations were examined by Haaretz as it undertook to reveal the true extent of this funding.

Haaretz has identified 50 U.S.-based organizations which transfer the bulk of their funding to settlements and operations across the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders.) Their revenues between 2009 and 2013 (the last year for which there is extensive data) exceeded $280 million – or over one billion shekels. Most of the funds came from donations, with a smaller amount coming from returns on capital investment.

The combined expenses of the organizations amounted to more than $267 million, some $224 million of which were defined as grants. Most of the money went to the territories through Israeli non-profit groups.

The revenue of these organizations has increased virtually every year, with corresponding increases in the funds transferred to Israel. In 2009, they took in $45 million and transferred $36 million as grants. By 2013, their revenues had increased to $73 million, with grants amounting to $54 million. Initial data from 2014 suggests last year’s figures were even higher.

These numbers do not include donations to Israeli organizations operating within the Green Line or private support for non-profit groups operating across the Green Line. Nor do the numbers include the extensive Israeli government support for some of the groups, or donations from Europe, South America and Canada.

Road of the Patriarchs

On a hot mid-October day, a Haaretz reporter travels with Dror Etkes on a dirt road outside the fence surrounding the settlement of Elazar. Etkes, head of the Kerem Navot NGO, has been monitoring and researching settlements in the territories for years. The road follows an ancient route and is known as the Road of The Patriarchs, passing through several settlements in the Gush Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem. We stop beside a spot called "Netzer" — an open shed with some benches around it.

The Road of the Patriarchs running along the settlements of the Gush Etzion Bloc.Credit: Uri Blau

No doubt, it’s a pleasant walk. Settlers grow grapes and olives here and the place is ideal for a picnic or a morning jog. However, construction here was done without any permits, explains Etkes. Some of the buildings, including the shed beside which we are standing, were built on private Palestinian land.

The signage on the shed is in polished Hebrew and English. “The Arabs, assisted by left-wing organizations in Israel and abroad, by the Palestinian Authority, the UN and the European Union, are trying to rob state lands by cultivating them and creating facts on the ground. Their purpose is clear: ensuring Arab control of all land lying between Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria in order to choke them off and prevent their expansion. Netzer is but one example of the fierce struggle over every acre of land your presence here today strengthens and contributes to increasing awareness of the need to preserve these lands and establish Jewish sovereignty in the area.”

The notice is signed by Women in Green, a group set up by Nadia Matar from the adjacent settlement of Efrat. “We operate from a deep conviction of the central role of the promised Land of Israel,” says the group’s website. “We believe in the vital struggle for this land. In addition to activities revolving around education and disseminating information about our right to the Land of Israel we believe that today, more than ever, our movement is working towards tightening our hold on the land.”

Not far from here is an illegal outpost called Oz Vegaon, which was established last year, supported in part by Women in Green.

The illegal outpost of Oz Vegaon, a park built to commemorate the three Israeli youths kidnapped and murdered in 2014.Credit: Uri Blau

On November 19, a group of students from a yeshiva in Bet Shemesh were on their way to the outpost when, at Gush Etzion junction, the taxi van they were travelling in was shot at by a Palestinian terrorist, resulting in the killing of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old American from Sharon, Massachusetts, who was in Israel on a gap year.

The outpost was erected in honor of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel, the three Israeli youths from the Gush Etzion Bloc who were kidnapped and murdered in June 2014 in what was one of the triggers of the Gaza war that summer. It has Israeli flags flying over it, is connected to the water supply and a sign announces that the plan is to turn it into a campground. Despite the 18 demolition orders issued against the outpost by the Civil Administration, it was reported last September that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon intends to legitimize it and prevent its evacuation.

The Defense Ministry said in response that Ya’alon had no intention of legalizing the outpost. “To the contrary,” a spokesperson said. “The defense minister has ordered that all illegal structures in the park be demolished. Since this is state land, however, he has initiated a process for legally establishing a recreation site in the park for hikers and visitors in memory of the three boys killed.”

In a phone conversation with Haaretz, Matar denied that any of the outposts connected to the group were illegal.

"All those places are now fine," she said. "Don’t try to find illegal things, focus on what our enemy does to destroy us and chose your side."

Women in Green is opposed to the financial support that left-wing groups receive from abroad, but most of its own budget is also financed by foreign donations.

In her conversation with Haaretz, Matar rejected the parallel, saying "you are talking about people from the left who donate in order to destroy Israel and I am talking about people, from Israel and abroad, who donate to build Eretz Israel."

The group’s 2012-2013 budget amounted to 700,000 shekels ($180,000) and it came from the Central Fund of Israel, one of the key funds financing activities in the territories. The CFI is managed by Jay Marcus, who operates it out of the central Manhattan offices of a textile company owned by his family. The fund’s revenues in 2013 were more than $19 million, a $3 million increase over the previous year. In 2014, revenues rose to more than $25 million.

A significant portion of the fund’s cash goes across the Green Line. Each year, for example, it transfers hundreds of thousands of shekels to the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar, one of the most extreme institutions in the West Bank. The heads of the yeshiva, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, are the authors of “Torat Hamelech,” a book dealing, among other topics, with the circumstances in which it is permissible to kill non-Jews. The two rabbis were questioned by the police, but not prosecuted, in 2012 on suspicion of incitement to violence and racism.

Jewish settlers throw rocks toward Palestinians during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar.Credit: AP

In a conversation last year with a Haaretz reporter, Marcus said the organization makes donations to a number of Israeli non-profits, operating on both sides of the Green Line. He declined to disclose what percentage of the donations goes to the settlements, saying that it is not an issue and insisting that the money does not serve political purposes.

In 2013, the organization Marcus heads transferred 191,000 shekels ($50,000) to a non-profit group called Honenu, which provides legal aid to Jews accused of terrorism. According to reports it filed with Israeli authorities, in 2014 Honenu saw a significant increase in the donations it received – from two to almost three million shekels ($516,000 to $775,000). The support from the Central Fund grew to 320,000 shekels ($82,000). An additional 79,000 ($20,000) shekels arrived from Honenu, a New York state-based non-profit. American Friends of Zo Artzeinu, also a New York-based organization, donated 109,000 shekels ($28,000). The U.S.-based Honenu did not return calls seeking comment, while Rob Muchnick, director of Zo Artzeinu said: "The decision to donate to Honenu was done by the board." He did not respond to questions about Honenu's activities.

In addition to legal aid, the group has provided financial support to people who were suspected, prosecuted or convicted on terrorism charges, as well as to their families. Among the families that have received support are that of Ami Popper, who was convicted of murdering seven Palestinian laborers in 1990, and the families of the two imprisoned members of the Bat Ayin underground, who laid an explosive device outside a girls’ school in East Jerusalem in 2002.

Ami Popper.Credit: AFP

Others who received support from Honenu include Yifat Alkobi, a Hebron settler who was caught on tape calling a Palestinian woman a "whore" and two residents of the Yitzhar settlement who received an administrative restraining order banning them from the settlement.

In the past, the group has raised money for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir. Donations to the group are tax-deductible, according to the Honenu website.

"Honenu, a legal aid organization, has always operated within the law and only in accordance with its goals," the group said in a statement to Haaretz. It said that under confidentiality rules it could not discuss single cases, but added that the organization has provided aid to thousands of suspects, including Israeli policemen, soldiers and civilians.

A girl in a red shirt

The situation in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, in East Jerusalem, is chaotic. Viewed from an observation post in the neighbourhood of Batn al-Hawa, the crowded houses look as if they were built on top of one another. In the middle of the village is a house with a gigantic Israeli flag draped across its entire height. Other, smaller Israeli flags flutter all around, while some Palestinian flags hang on adjacent buildings. The narrow alleys allow only one vehicle at a time to pass through. Most vehicles belong to Arab residents, though the occasional armored vehicle of settlers, typically dented by rocks thrown at it, also passes by. The walls are covered in graffiti, most of them with variations on the Palestinian flag. “Kill them” is written in Hebrew on a wall not far from one of the settler houses. Around the corner is a red swastika.

An Israeli flag hangs on the wall of a building that was taken over by Israeli settlers after Palestinian families were evicted in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan.Credit: AP

Two Israeli guards walk confidently down a narrow alley, passing Palestinian children sitting by the roadside. They wear bulletproof vests and carry weapons. A few minutes later they return, accompanied by a 10-year old girl wearing a red shirt. Their job, it turns out, was to accompany her home safely to the area of the village occupied by settlers.

On the way to observe the houses of the settlers, together with Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher from the left-wing Ir Amim non-profit, we encounter some members of the Border Police, together with civilian guards of the Jewish settlement in the village. “Who are you?” they all ask in authoritarian tones. “Who permitted you to take photos?” They refuse to accept that it is an open area over which they have no jurisdiction or reason to prevent journalists from doing their job. These are tense days in Jerusalem. A few hours earlier, three civilians had been killed and others wounded in two terrorist attacks. The policemen have no interest in discussing the settlers whose houses they are guarding.

The two non-profit groups operating in the area are Ateret Cohanim, whose Manhattan-based U.S. partner raised more than $5 million between 2009 and 2013, and Elad (an acronym for “El Ir David,” which means “To the City of David,”) which received more than $23 million in the same period.

According to a comprehensive report on Silwan, “national assets were transferred, with no tenders issued, to settler groups.” The report was written in 2009 by former journalist Miron Rapaport for Ir Amim, which researches issues connected to Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Some of these [houses] were confiscated from their Palestinian owners using methods described by the courts as devoid of a legal basis, and then given to settlers without tenders and for a token payment,” the report found.

The acquisition of structures in East Jerusalem by these groups is often done through companies registered in well-known tax havens. The serious allegations made by Palestinian residents of Silwan and left-wing groups regarding the acquisition of the houses have been thoroughly reported by Haaretz correspondent Nir Hasson.

The groups have also taken steps to have Palestinian residents evicted from the village, particularly from the area of the archeological site known as the City of David. Tatarsky says that up to 2,500 Jewish settlers now live in the Arab neighborhoods lying within what is known as the “historic basin” of Jerusalem. The cost of protecting them, amounting to some 100 million shekels in 2014, is covered by the state.

The jumble of houses in Silwan.Credit: Uri Blau

The Palestinians of Silwan may be tax-paying residents of Jerusalem, but the condition of the village is dire. The one, lone garbage bin we saw did have the city’s logo on it, but, judging by the potholes and garbage all around, it would seem that the municipality is not very active there. “We’ve asked that the road be repaved and that water dripping on our houses from the road above be taken care of, but the municipality has done nothing,” says Zuheir Rajbi, who lives next to Beit Yehonatan, a building owned by Ateret Cohanim.

Rajbi is very unhappy with his Jewish neighbors, whose presence, along with their accompanying security guards, is very prominent. “Now they are talking of expanding the road and giving them a parking lot. I don’t see how they can do that,” he says on our way back. All of a sudden we hear a loud bang. Someone has thrown a rock at our car, mistaking us for settlers. Children surround the car and Rajbi yells at them that we are from the media. The children, half apologetically, signal to someone above us to stop throwing stones.

Almost 10,000 kilometers from the boiling tension in Jerusalem, on Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan, sits Moshe Billet, who heads Friends of Ir David, an organization that raises money to support “the preservation and development of the Biblical City of David and its environs.” The group raised $6.5 million in 2013, an increase of $700,000 over the previous year. Who are its donors? When contacted by Haaretz, Billet declined to comment or even state his role in the organization. We emailed him asking to meet and get a list of the organization’s donors. “Friends of Ir David respects the privacy of its donors,” he replied.

Friends of Ateret Cohanim also sits in NYC. The woman who answered the phone at their New York office was very pleasant. “I thank you for your interest in making a donation,” she told a Haaretz reporter, explaining that a donation will strengthen the settlements, purchase security equipment or go toward building a playground for children. “You understand,” she said, “that they can’t really play there out in the street.” Asked to confirm that the donation is tax deductible, she responded: “Of course it is.”

From Silwan we turn to the Mount of Olives. Near the top, just before the Makassed Hospital next to the village of Al-Tur, lies the Beit Orot yeshiva. The security guard approaches. That’s the routine. “Why are you taking pictures? Who are they for? Who gave you permission? You’re not allowed to.” The compound looks neglected and unattractive; equipment in the playground is broken. The place looks half-abandoned, even though a mother is sitting there with her two children. Nearby, a neighborhood of concrete structures is being built by the Elad organization.

The Beit Orot yeshiva on the Mount of Olives, financed by Miami-based businessman Irving Moskowitz and his wife Cherna.Credit: Uri Blau

A young couple approaches the yeshiva. Elad, a 22-year-old who didn’t give his last name, is completing his military service, parallel to his religious studies at the yeshiva. His wife, Na’ama, is studying graphic design at Emunah College in Jerusalem. For the last few months, they’ve been living in a trailer home in the compound, as have several other young couples. It is 45 square meters and a bit messy the kick-off point for a young couple beginning their journey in life. The wall is adorned with a photo of the great Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook and slogans promoting love and faith. Asked about rent, Na'ama says it is seven hundred shekels a month ($160), “but we don’t pay. There is a stipend from the yeshiva.”

Elad is enthusiastic and faith-driven. It’s important to him to convince people that his path is the right one. He has no problem with the Arabs, he says, as long as they recognize that Jews are sovereign here. He even says that he’s sort of a leftist. Has he ever spoken with his neighbors in Al-Tur, right across the fence? No, he admits. If there are any problems with them, the security guards or Border Police take care of it.

The money for the Beit Orot yeshiva and the small trailer site came from non-profit groups connected to American millionaire Irving Moskowitz and his wife Cherna. Emails and calls requesting comments from the Irving Moskowitz Foundation and the Cherna Moskowitz Foundation were not returned. Through these U.S.-based non-profits, the couple has given tens of millions of dollars over the years to finance Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Elad is surprised when told they live abroad, in Miami. “There’s something wrong with that,” he replies. “They should move here.”

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.



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