Israel Pushes Bill for World Zionist Organization to Manage Land in the West Bank

Proposed legislation would put the organization in charge of land for smaller settlements ■ Such a step would legitimize actions taken by the organization in the past which had been criticized by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber

A view of a Jewish settlement near the Palestinians town of Jenin in the northern West Bank, July 3, 2005.
ARIEL SCHALIT / AP

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is set to support a bill that authorizes the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division to allocate lands for Jewish “rural settlement” in the West Bank.

Such a step would legitimize actions taken by the organization in the past which had been criticized by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber.

The bill calls for the director of the government’s Custodian’s Office – which is authorized to manage government and abandoned property in the territories – to allocate these lands to the Settlement Division, to manage according to standards in keeping with practices of the Israel Lands Authority. It says that management of such land would have to fall “in line with the circumstances” but does not elaborate.

To really understand Israel and the Palestinians - subscribe to Haaretz

The WZO Settlement Division has long served as the government’s executive arm for rural settlement in the territories, funded through the state budget. The legislation on the table would formalize the division's status as a lands administrator and its task of serving as an indirect manager of the lands of most relatively small settlements and those deemed as “rural in nature” that are neither cities nor local councils. Under usual procedure, the state allocates the lands to the division, which in turn allocates them to cooperative associations responsible for the management of settlements. The associations, in turn, allocate land to their members.

Zilber had frozen the division’s activity in wake of criticism that its work with the state was not properly authorized by the law. The law currently views the division as a body carrying out a governmental role like allocating state lands. But the organization is not under full government oversight, and Zilber had found that “this situation is liable to create a kind of ‘back door’ for the government to carry out illegal activities.”

The bill’s sponsor, MK Betzalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) said the Knesset committee has expressed a commitment to continue developing settlements.

“This bill will give the division the tools needed to manage lands in the rural settlements of Judea and Samaria with the greatest efficiency, for the benefit of residents and without political pressure or legal obstacles.”

The bill further says that “the political and security sensitivity involved in settlement development in the region justifies management and land allocation free of tenders to prevent publicity" and permit the development of settlements.