A building in the West Bank settlement of Beit El dedicated by the U.S. ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, was constructed illegally on privately owned Palestinian land, documents obtained by Haaretz show.
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The Friedman Faculty House at the Raaya Girls High School is situated in the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El. Part of this neighborhood was demolished by High Court of Justice order five years ago because the land had been seized illegally. The Friedman Faculty House is one of nine buildings left in the neighborhood that were spared demolition at the time.
Construction on the Friedman Faculty House began in 1999. In 2002, a demolition order was issued against it by the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which supervises construction in the settlements. Although it has been ignored, demolition order No. 224/02, according to Civil Administration records, is still on the books. The Palestinian landowners and their heirs have tried several times to reclaim the land and have the buildings removed, but to no avail.
Early next week, a large group of them plan to submit a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that all the remaining buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood, including the Friedman Faculty House, be taken down.
“We are bringing this suit because all our previous attempts to get the Civil Administration to enforce the law have failed,” said Husam Yunis, the lawyer representing the group. He said he expected the petition to be submitted either Sunday or Monday.
Assisting him in this suit is Dror Etkes, the executive director of Kerem Navot, an organization that monitors Israeli land policy in the West Bank and one of the country’s leading authorities on illegal settlement construction. Like all the other buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood, Etkes told Haaretz, the Friedman Faculty House was built on land “that was never purchased and it never received approval.”
Friedman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Friedman Faculty House has the following written above its entrance:
DAVID & TAMMY FRIEDMAN
IN HONOR OF THEIR PARENTS
RABBI & MRS. MORRIS & ADELAIDE FRIEDMAN
MR. & MRS. JULIUS & BUNNY SAND”
The building is one of several located on a plot known in the land registry as Block 5 Parcel 30. A copy of the original deed for that plot, obtained by Haaretz, shows that the owners are Palestinians from the nearby village of Dura al-Qara. The names that appear on the deed are those of the owner, Ghalib Mohammed Ahmed Abed el-Fatah Kasem, and his heirs – his wife and their eight children. The owner has since passed away, but among those planning to petition the High Court next week for a demolition order against the remaining buildings in Ulpana is one of these heirs.
This latest Supreme Court petition involving Ulpana comes just weeks after the Knesset passed a highly controversial law enabling retroactive legalization of lands seized illegally for settlement construction. Because the Friedman Faculty House is located on such a plot, the incoming U.S. ambassador could become a beneficiary of this law. It is widely anticipated, however, that the Supreme Court will overturn the law, which has drawn condemnation around the world.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to begin confirmation hearings on Friedman’s appointment Thursday morning. Friedman has served since 2014 as president of an American organization that raises funds for the Beit El settlement. It is not clear whether he has stepped down yet from that position.
Liberal Jewish organizations in the United States are deeply opposed to his nomination and have been campaigning to block it. Friedman is a staunch supporter of the settlement movement and rejects the notion of an independent Palestinian state.
Last year he wrote in an op-ed for Arutz Sheva, a popular news site among the settler population – and funded by American Friends of Beit El – that the members and supporters of J Street, a liberal American Zionist organization, were “far worse than kapos.” Until recently, Friedman was one of the news site’s regular columnists.
Almost the entire settlement of Beit El was built on private Palestinian land. The older neighborhoods, however, were constructed under special military orders that are difficult to contest in court. Beit El is located near the Palestinian city of Ramallah and is not part of the big settlement blocs. It is, therefore, not expected to be incorporated into Israel under any future peace agreement.
American Friends of Beit El supports a variety of projects and institutions in the settlement aside from Arutz Sheva, among them a large yeshiva, several high schools and a pre-military gap-year program. Just like the Raayah Girls High School, most of these institutions were built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land.
Last week, it was reported that American Friends of Beit El is behind a new construction project in the settlement recently approved by the government.
The project includes a five-story building – part of which has already been constructed illegally on private Palestinian land and will be retroactively legalized – and 20 housing units.
Several days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Israel Defense Ministry approved plans for 2,500 new housing units in the settlements. The plans included 100 new units in Beit El.
The new building project in Beit El was submitted to the planning authorities earlier this month. According to Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project, construction of the building already began in 2014 by Sukkat Ovadia, a non-profit that is funded almost entirely by American Friends of Beit El. The new plan calls for demolishing part of the building that was constructed on private land, retroactively legalizing the rest of it, and adding several additional floors. Sukkat Ovadia is also the organization behind the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El.